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Authors: John Grant

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BOOK: Strider's Galaxy
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"It sounds like I'm in for a very lonely time of it," said Strider.

"No," said Pinocchio. "That is exactly the reason why I shall be aboard the
Santa Maria
alongside you. I'll go through all my dumb-bot routines for the sake of the other personnel, but to you I shall be a friend. That is why I have gone through the charade I've performed over the past year or more: to become your friend."

"Lying is a rotten basis for a friendship," said Strider.

"Would you have come out here to look at the stars if anyone else had asked you?"

The question made Strider think. "Possibly," she said, watching the steam-cloud of her breath make formidably heavy-seeming shapes in front of her.

"Be honest," said Pinocchio.

"Probably not, but possibly. Look, I'm getting cold."

"A moment longer. Do you think of me as a friend?"

"Of course I do. Remember, rather than try to disable you and throw you to the cops, I suggested we could be friends."

"Then trust me."

"Actually, I already do—even though it's hard to trust a liar."

"I lied because it was necessary. I had to earn your friendship."

"Can you still make coffee?"

"Of course. And I can still clean your clothes."

"Can you be a lover?"

"If need be. I was very offended, by the way, when you felt for my genitals."

"I was a bit drunk," she said.

"You still are."

"Not very." Even though the night was as warm as Martian nights ever got, it was nevertheless cold enough to sober someone fairly quickly.

"Do you want me to add being a sexbot to my capabilities? It is something that could be arranged."

"Let's get back to City 3 and find a cabble," said Strider. "I have a lot to think about."

A minute later, as they walked back towards the orange glow of the City 3 blister, she suddenly said, "Hell, yes, Pinocchio, I'd like to have sex with you: it's my last chance on Mars, and you're the person I'd most like to be on a bed with. But there's no need to bother about getting yourself a penis fixed on. That's always been an optional extra, as far as I'm concerned. Let's be friends."

"You called me a person again," said the bot.

"Well, you are, aren't you?" said Strider.

#

Much later, as she was drifting off to sleep, Strider began to realize that she, who had a quiet pride in her ability to manipulate other people, had herself been manipulated by the SSIA. No: "manipulated" wasn't the right term; she had been
managed
through the use of a paucity of information. Even the bot pretending to sleep beside her had told her only fragments of the truth.

It made obvious sense that Pinocchio should be along for the mission to be a friend to her, so that she didn't succumb to loneliness. But another reason for sending along a bot was that the human component of the mission could perish—either en route, through going ship-crazy or because of systems malfunction or any of a dozen other reasons, or after they had landed on Tau Ceti
II
: a planet might seem benign but possess hidden dangers. Viral, fungal and bacterial diseases were things that Strider knew about only in theory, mainly because the War of Hatred was something every kid learnt about; but a fresh planet was very likely to possess micro-organisms of its own against which the human frame had no defenses—even the nanobots might have difficulty recognizing alien micro-organisms.

So there was a second reason for Pinocchio to be aboard. If all the humans died, the SSIA wouldn't have lost out entirely on the mission, because there was someone—she no longer, particularly after the past few hours, found it possible to think of the bot as anything but a person, albeit not a human one—who would be able to report back. The
Santa Maria
's Main Computer would be able to do some of this as well, of course; but it would never be able to do so from the surface of Tau Ceti
II
, because the
Santa Maria
was not designed ever to make planetfall. The bot shuttles, linked with the Main Computer, could go down, but they couldn't walk around. Pinocchio, on the other hand, might be the nearest thing to a human being the SSIA could put on to the planetary surface.

Her friend. Her occasional lover. Her back-up.

Or was
she
the back-up?

She punched his hard chest gently, without malice. He turned over in his pseudo-sleep.

The SSIA were backing it both ways. They had chosen her as the
Santa Maria
's captain in part because, unlike most people, she wasn't reliant on human-integrated hardware, which had a habit of going wrong over the years: some of her personnel were undoubtedly going to have a hard time of it when their secondary retinal screens or their stim sockets crashed. There were spares aboard ship, of course, but not the fully equipped operating theater that might be necessary for some of the fiddlier re-implantations.

She was looking forward to meeting the remainder of her personnel, in a few days' time.

#

"Jesus!" said Maria Strauss-Giolitto as she disembarked from the shuttle on Phobos and got her first sight of the
Santa Maria
. She'd seen holos, of course, during the past year's worth of training sessions, but they'd done nothing to prepare her for the physical experience of approaching the ship.

"What do you mean?" said Lan Yi's voice in her helmet. The elderly scientist had been immediately behind her as they'd debouched from the shuttle, whose crew were waiting impatiently for the two of them to get within the safety of the
Santa Maria
so that the shuttle could return to Mars to pick up another pair of prospective colonists.

"He is—well, not the god exactly of my faith," said Maria Strauss-Giolitto. "I was blaspheming. Will you look at that baby?"

"Yes," said Lan Yi. "It is very impressive, is it not? When I was first brought up here a month ago I made a very similar exclamation."

The ship was just over three kilometers long and shaped like an enormous fingertip, although here and there various sensor decks protruded, destroying the craft's otherwise smoothly curved lines. Its surface was studded with plastite windows of various sizes; some of these were lit up. The fore part of the
Santa Maria
, which would have been the foremost point of a well manicured fingernail, was entirely transparent, and brightly lit. There was a suggestion of motion within this area. Down each side were four equally spaced blisters, housing the shuttles that it was hoped would ferry personnel to and from the surface of Tau Ceti
II
. But what had impressed Strauss-Giolitto was not so much the dazzling appearance of the vessel as the sheer sensation of
mass
that emanated from it. People could tell you over and over that the craft massed several hundred million tons, and was one of the largest mobile objects the human species had ever constructed, but it still didn't prepare you for the physical confrontation with the beast. As a matter of fact, it was just over Phobos's tiny horizon; as a matter of perception, it
was
Phobos's horizon.

At the rear of the gigantic fingertip that was the
Santa Maria
projected an extended bar, like the exposed bone running between the first and second knuckles; at its end was a hemisphere of diameter nearly a kilometer. This was where the matter-antimatter reactions that would power the
Santa Maria
through space towards Tau Ceti
II
would occur. It was also where the nuclear pulse fusion explosions that the craft would use to get itself out of the Solar System would be mounted; nuclear pulse fusion explosions were dangerous enough, but no one in their right minds would risk creating matter-antimatter reactions anywhere closer to Mars than somewhere beyond the orbit of Scarab, the gas-giant tenth planet discovered as late as 2103.

"I think we should get moving," said Lan Yi's voice in her helmet after a while. "The shuttle crew have a job to do."

Strauss-Giolitto nodded, then said: "Isn't it always the way that, when you come across the most amazing thing you've ever seen in your life, there's a good reason for hurrying along?"

"Once the shuttle's blasted off, we can come out here again," said Lan Yi quietly. "Our services are not required aboard for the next few days."

"Won't superbitch Strider object? I mean, it would be a bit too much like having fun."

"Have you met Strider?" They were bobbing across the stone towards the
Santa Maria
in that peculiarly clumsy way everybody did on Phobos.

"No," said Strauss-Giolitto. "From everything I've heard, it's an experience not to be looked forward to."

"Who has been telling you this?"

"Most people. She's supposed to be a hard number."

"Who are these 'most people'?"

Already, lurching ten or fifteen meters with every pace, they were halfway to the
Santa Maria
.

"Everyone I know who's come into contact with her during training sessions," said Strauss-Giolitto. "They all say she's a tight bitch."

"She can be cold on occasion," said Lan Yi. His voice was beginning to sound a little breathless. Maneuvering oneself across the surface of Phobos was harder work than it seemed. "But she's no ice queen. I've met her several times, and like her very much. I would rate her IQ as being rather less than my own, but not by very much."

"A high IQ doesn't make someone a better person." To her annoyance, Strauss-Giolitto was likewise discovering this odd stumbling process tiring. She turned a somersault between paces just to reassure herself that she was able to. The stars whirled nauseatingly around her.

"Don't believe what those people told you," said Lan Yi. "I'm sure she can be ruthless when she has to be. She swears a lot—and sometimes quite interestingly. Most of the time, though, she's restrained but also prepared to listen to what you have to say. If she thinks you're talking rubbish she'll say so, but very politely, so that you don't feel like an idiot."

"How do you mean?"

Lan Yi laughed. It was a dry noise in Strauss-Giolitto's helmet.

"I insisted to her that I needed at least a hundred techbots if I were to do my job properly. She said the SSIA had said I could have four. I was prepared to appeal over her head until she pointed out that every extra kilogram of mass aboard the
Santa Maria
made the mission less likely to succeed: did I really believe it was worth doing without one of the shuttles in order to have my extra bots? Better a job done, if not as well as I would like, than a job completely undone." He laughed again. "Then she took me out for a meal, and we talked it over a second time."

Lan Yi was adapting to the strains of moving about on Phobos better than she was, which irritated Strauss-Giolitto yet further. She was in her early twenties—she thought she was twenty-four—and he must be a hundred years older. She was in splendid physical condition and over two and a half meters tall; he was apparently frail and barely two-thirds her height.

"She was right," continued Lan Yi. "By the time I'd worked it out properly, I realized that I could get as good results from four techbots as from a hundred, because I could use the Main Computer for data storage. I had been thinking lazily; Strider hadn't. Many people I have worked with would have made me feel foolish because of my lack of clear thinking. Strider did not."

"That doesn't sound like the person everyone else describes," said Strauss-Giolitto impatiently. They were very close to the
Santa Maria
now—close enough that the curve of its hull overhead was no longer noticeable.

"Perhaps this displays a lack in those other people rather than in Strider," said Lan Yi mildly.

"Hmmf."

"How many of these other people are going to be a part of this mission?"

Strauss-Giolitto hesitated. "Well, none, actually."

"I do not think that this is a coincidence: only the best are being permitted aboard this vessel. Look, someone is letting down an access tube for us."

Strauss-Giolitto was silent as they entered the tube's outer airlock, stripped naked, stuffed their suits into disposal vents, and were showered with various precautionary chemicals to ensure they were bringing nothing into the
Santa Maria
's ecosystem that had not been planned for. She tried not to look at the little out-of-Taiwanese's body, but couldn't help it. He was more muscular than she had expected, his only visible augmentation the secondary retinal screen that hovered a couple of centimeters in front of his right eye. With his left eye he was unashamedly scanning her own body.

"You are very lovely," he remarked.

She snorted. "Dream on."

"I was speaking aesthetically."

"Oh yeah?"

"Oh yeah, as you put it, Strauss-Giolitto. If I knew you better I might find the display of your body alluring. As it is, I find it merely beautiful—you are an elegant statue."

The second airlock hissed, and two sets of SSIA uniform flopped on to the floor on its far side. After a moment's confusion Lan Yi and Strauss-Giolitto sorted out between them whose was whose.

She didn't know whether to feel complimented or to be angry with the small Taiwanese.

Then they were walking up the brightly illuminated walkway through the tube towards the ship's interior.

#

They could hear the tube grunting and creaking as it retracted itself behind them. The innermost airlock grudgingly granted them admission, and they were met by someone even taller than Strauss-Giolitto. His face was crafted as a perfect simulacrum of a human being's and he was clad in the form-shrouding standard uniform of the SSIA, but she immediately recognized him—it—as a bot.

Lan Yi was shaking the bot's hand and reaching up to slap it on the shoulder.

"My good friend Pinocchio," the diminutive scientist was saying. "How very fine to find you here to welcome us."

The bot's head buzzed. "Dr Lan Yi," it said after a perceptible pause. "The pleasure is mine entirely. I have been despatched by Captain Strider to guide the new arrivals to their cabins."

Strauss-Giolitto spared the bot no more than a glance. Although technical manuals and holos had described the interior of the
Santa Maria
to her, the direct experience was as startling as the outside had been. Almost the entirety of the vast space was empty. In the distance, near the craft's stern, she could perceive a small cluster of hut-like structures: from here, about a kilometer away, they looked almost as if they were made of wood, though she knew this had to be an illusion—textured and colored plastite was much lighter and tougher than wood. Still, she liked the fact that the craft's designers had taken the trouble to create that illusion. It made the bizarre space within the
Santa Maria
seem humanized. Overhead a long daylight-simulator ran the length of the vessel; it had been set to Earth-standard, which like most people who had spent much of their lives on Mars she found offensively bright. The ship's floor was covered in fields of yellow and bright green grain; here and there were groves of fruit-trees. Overhead, right up by the edges of the daylight-simulator, she could see the markings for further fields. For the first part of its voyage the
Santa Maria
would be set into latitudinal revolution, so that the direction of "down" would be towards the exterior of the craft as the spin simulated gravity. Thereafter, once it started accelerating out of the Solar System, the spin would be stopped and the fields would be swivelled out from the hull to form several layers of "landscape." The cabins where she and the others would sleep and spend their leisure time would likewise swivel. Several elevators, currently useless, ran the length of the vessel. The system was unlikely to work perfectly: agribots would ply endlessly to return topsoil from the craft's stern to the fields where it properly belonged.

BOOK: Strider's Galaxy
3.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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