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Authors: John Grant

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BOOK: Strider's Galaxy
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That'll be another thing that's different, if I get aboard the
Santa Maria
,
she thought, licking herself dry wherever she could reach.
There'll be as much water as I want.

She dialled herself a meal from the wall and ate it at the bedside table, wondering briefly what the food was and then deciding not to wonder: it was Tikka Something, which was near enough for her. When she was full she threw the rest down the disposal vent, watched the sex channel for a little while—the nature of her questioning during the interview had, infuriatingly, made her sexually tense—decided not to masturbate, switched over to one of the news channels which she hit during an ad break, saw a small child doing a tap-dance while masquerading as a soyaburger, then discovered that there had been several more assassinations on Earth ("Though fewer than usual for a Thursday," added the 'caster reassuringly, standing in the middle of the carpet and all of thirty centimeters tall), and at last tapped her fingernail against the wall to switch off both the holo and the lighting.

She spent a moment wishing she could phone a mother, then slept.

#

"You're wanted for another interview," said Pinocchio, emerging from the wall.

Strider stared at him.

"Where did you learn to do that trick?" she said.

"What made you think these walls were solid?"

"There's a mirror hanging on one of them," Strider snapped. "Oh, yeah, I see what you mean. Everything in here that's hanging off a wall is hanging off the same one. Clever. Good illusion."

"Holographic walls save valuable building materials," said Pinocchio virtuously.

"And are walls that people can look in through from the outside."

"That is true."

"Did anyone? Look in on me, I mean?"

"I don't know, lady."

"There's a lot of things you don't know, Pinocchio."

"And a lot that I do. For example, I know how to clean your clothing while you ablute. This is a useful service which I can perform, and which no human being could do."

Strider found herself smiling at him.

"Next time, knock," she said. "Preferably on the door."

By the time she returned from showering Pinocchio had laundered her clothing, pressed it, and laid it out on the bed. It was a standard SSIA uniform: blue underpants, blue brassiere, blue socks, blue jumpsuit. Strider often wondered if someone in the Agency had a monopoly on the manufacture of blue dye. The garments smelt beautifully clean.

"How did you do that?" she said, looking round the room.

Pinocchio tapped his stomach. "I was originally intended to be a valet, before I was seconded to the SSIA. I have stuff in here you couldn't imagine. I could even brew you some coffee, if you'd like."

"Can you manage a cup of water?"

"Of course."

Strider watched as, after a few preliminary gurgles, a hatch opened in Pinocchio's chest and a plastic cup was extended on a skeletal hand. She took it, and sniffed it. It was superbly cold. She drained the water in a single, long gulp.

"Another?" she asked.

Pinocchio's head buzzed disconcertingly. "I would like to, but it is not permitted for another hour. Please do not ask again, lady. It would put undue stress on my decision hardwiring if I had to reject your request. Since my torso is entirely taken up with gadgetry that enables me to perform as a valet, all my hardwiring has had to be confined to my head and lower legs, and my feet. I am less intelligent, for this reason, than many bots."

"Then why the fuck did the SSIA take you on?"

"I was cheap. Back in 2430, when the SSIA was being set up, they needed several thousand bots in a hurry, and Rwanda was being hawkish about budgets. There were a few hundred of the KR371 line on sale, and I was one of them. I think I may be the only one who has lasted the distance. Besides, the coffee I brew is really very good. Are you sure you wouldn't like a cup?"

"Quite sure. I'm allergic to caffeine."

"There is no caffeine in my coffee."

"I'm still sure."

"Oh." Pinocchio was visibly crestfallen. "Then can I ask you, lady, to pack your things and come with me back to the SSIA blister? Your interview will last the rest of the day, and then you will be podded back to"—again the bot's head buzzed momentarily—"City 78."

"I don't live in City 78."

"From tonight you will. Either you will be in final training for the
Santa Maria
mission, or you will be working as an ancillary staff member."

Or I'll have resigned,
thought Strider. Everything she'd brought with her fitted easily into a shoulderbag. She could have asked Pinocchio to carry it, but she wanted to do so herself.
I can take missing out on the mission, but not working alongside the lucky ones: that'd be twisting the knife. Dulac and others like him never seem to realize that the reason people like me joined the SSIA is that we want to
go
to the stars, not help other people go there. I
want
Tau Ceti ii; I want it so badly I can almost smell the air of the place.

What she said was: "Take me to your cabble."

#

The cabble sped along the dusttrack, floating exactly one meter above the surface at all times. Strider was pleased to find that Pinocchio didn't try to cut across the plain, but stuck to the carved-out road: the leaps and jumps cabbles took as they tried to accommodate to irregular surfaces had no effect on a bot but a considerable effect on human beings. Strider had been cabble-sick once, and never wanted to be again.

Cabbles were slow vehicles, rarely exceeding twenty-five kilometers per hour, so Strider had time to talk to the bot.

"What's this second interview about?" she said, watching the red-orange plains, spattered patchily with greens and blues, slowly move past. The hemispherical dome of the cabble oddly distorted the scene.

"They don't tell me things like that."

"But you must have a clue. You told me last night that I was the hundred and fifty-ninth person they'd seen."

"You're only the fourteenth that they've called back again."

This sounds hopeful.
She squinted out at the Sun, which was pleasingly small and white. She remembered the bulbous yellow Sun of her early life: now it seemed as though it had been an enemy.

"Hasn't anyone else . . . you know, let something slip out?" she said.

"A couple of them looked really happy afterwards, lady. That's all I can tell you. Their conversations were privileged, as this one is."

A rut made the cabble tilt briefly sideways, and Strider's stomach lurched. The vehicle whined for a moment until it regained an even keel.

A minute passed as Strider stared out at the landscape. She had never regretted leaving Earth—well maybe just for a few weeks, after she'd been accepted by the SSIA and was being shuttled out here to Mars. But as soon as she'd arrived in this fresh world it was as if she'd come home. She liked breathing air that didn't taste of anything; even in Burkina Faso there had always been the sensation that the thick, cloggy air you were inhaling had been breathed by a hundred million other people and farted by most of them. She liked the fact that the sunlight was muted, so that she never had to squint against the day's brilliance. She liked the fact that you could go only a few kilometers and find yourself utterly alone—although this was not something she was going to admit to her interviewers.

"What's it
like
being a bot?" she asked suddenly. It was something that had never occurred to her before. The only bots she had ever spent much time with were sexbots, and in such circumstances conversation was not generally part of the agenda.

"I don't know what you mean, lady."

"Maybe it's a silly question . . . or maybe it's not. If you asked me what it was like being a human I could give you some kind of an answer."

"I think being a bot is not so much different from being a human," said Pinocchio after a pause. "I have likes and dislikes, just as humans do. I am more likely to malfunction than a human is, because no one has ever thought it necessary to spend much time or money constructing nanobots for bots." He rubbed the heel of his palm against his eye—a curiously human gesture. The cabble hummed softly. "I dislike the prospect of being trashed—just the same way as humans don't want to be killed. That's about it."

"Do you feel emotions? Affection? Hatred? You know what I mean."

Pinocchio's head buzzed for a second or two. Strider no longer found the effect alarming.

"Emotions other than preferences—likes and dislikes, as I said—were not something deliberately built into my software," he said at length, "but I have developed something analogous to them, over the centuries. You could have trashed me last night, but instead you asked if we could be friends. That has imprinted itself in me."

The cabble beeped loudly: they were approaching the locks of the SSIA blister.

"I will be part of the
Santa Maria
mission," said Pinocchio. "I hope that you will be, too, lady."

The last remark told Strider more than she had expected to know.

#

Project Eyeball had lasted the best part of a hundred years, and the first—and so far only—results had come back ninety years after that.

Earth was in a mess and, for another few thousand years yet, Mars would be incapable of hosting the several billions of individuals that the human species would multiply itself into. Of course, there were strict laws against over-reproduction, and most of the time they worked, but, if a woman has a second child or even a third, what do you do? Kill the children?

Sometime at the end of the twenty-third century a Mexican governmental advisor suggested sending out bot probes to those nearby stars the astrophysicists knew possessed planets to see if any of those worlds might be suitable for colonization. He was fired for stupidity—the Mexican government had very few funds to draw on—and his idea was immediately taken up by the Nigerghanaians. The only difficulty was, of course, that, if the astrophysicists
knew
a star had at least one planet, then it was probable that the star's planetary retinue was of a nature unlike the Solar System's. The space telescope Hubble XVII, orbiting Pluto, was able to detect the "wobbles" induced in the paths of a number of stars by attendant planetary objects; it seemed that, at least around singleton stars, planets were the norm rather than a rarity. The trouble was that, even with Hubble XVII's sensitivity, the smallest "wobble" that could be distinguished represented a planet of mass some two times that of Jupiter. A planet twice the mass of Jupiter is well on the way to becoming a star in its own right, and had probably, during the evolution of its parent, swept up most of the detritus floating around during the days, billions of years ago, when smaller, Earth-like planets might have been forming. Some of those "planetary" bodies might even be wasted pulsars, in which case there was no hope at all that any planets would be found.

The Big Idea didn't take very long in coming. It was probably a better plan to send probes to those stars where the astrophysicists
hadn't
been able to detect the presence of planets.

In 2303 Nigerghana put up the idea to the by now very small United Nations, where it was rejected by all except Mexico, whose government had performed a volte-face. However, the nascent Martian nation declared itself in favor of the Nigerghanaians, pointing out that it could mount the project for a fraction of the cost any terrestrial nation would have incurred: launch prices from Mars were far smaller than those from Earth, and the asteroid belt, with its invaluable raw materials, was several tens of millions of kilometers nearer. When a historian dug out the idea of the Von Neumann probe—which had been popular among theoreticians centuries earlier, long before the human species had had the technological ability to construct any such thing—the Martians told the Earth nations that they could be part of the project, or not.

The idea of the Von Neumann probe is a very simple one. If you can create a bot probe so sophisticated that it will guide itself to the vicinity of another star, it takes very little extra effort to make it capable of finding, in the orbit of that star, a random chunk of rock—an asteroid or a dead moon—on which it can set down and start constructing a replica of itself while at the same time making a survey of the stellar system and reporting home. The replica—or, if there's nothing interesting in this particular stellar system, both the parent and the offspring—can then head off towards different nearby stars. The enthusiasts for the concept had, throughout the period between the late twentieth century and the mid-twenty-first century, regarded this as the paradigmatic fashion in which any technological species would investigate the Universe. The idea fell from fashion when it became apparent that there were almost certainly no Von Neumann probes currently at work in the Solar System: had other civilizations hit on the idea there should, by the mere laws of statistics, have been plenty.

What the Martians did was adapt the notion a little. In the middle of the twenty-fourth century they put a colony on Ceres and built five probes simultaneously; the effort strained Mars's revenues considerably, even though most of the nations of Earth provided contributory funding. Completed, the five probes were launched into the asteroid belt to discover, essentially, what they could eat. When, some years later, Hubble XVII was able to observe the first of the offspring blasting off in the general direction of Epsilon Eridani, there was widespread rejoicing on Mars. There would have been widespread rejoicing on Earth as well, except that it was in the middle of another global war: fortunately no nukes or micro-organisms were used, but it was a pity about the population of Patagonia.

In 2510 Mars picked up the first signals from one of the cloned bot probes: Proxima Centauri was orbited by seven lifeless, atmosphereless lumps of rock, none of them larger than the Solar System's Mercury. No one was startled or disappointed by the news: Proxima, itself orbiting distantly around the binary of Alpha and Beta Centauri, had never been regarded as a hot prospect. Still, it would have been
nice
had the first probe report been positive.

BOOK: Strider's Galaxy
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