by Ché Frances Monro
Blackness, emptiness, the darkness between the stars. Wanderer twisted into existence from hyperspace.
In the ship's lounge Nina knelt at Master Thomas's feet, familiar queasiness seized her stomach as they rotated into normal space.
Alarms blared. "Collision Alert! Object detected on converging course. Prepare for acceleration! Take hold!" the ship's computer announced.
Nina leapt to her feet. She was a tall slim girl, dressed in a clone's regulation black jumpsuit. She kept her skin pale and her hair and eyes dark to match Thomas. "Master, please strap in, you might be hurt!"
"Nina!" Thomas shouted. "Get to the acceleration station and take hold!" He was already fastening the straps on his chair. Lord Fredrick was doing the same.
Nina blinked, realising he was right. She ran to emergency station set into the wall with its take hold bars and webbing. She pulled the webbing around herself and it tightened automatically, pulling her arms painfully tight and restraining her. She was secure.
"Tracking... Tracking... Analysing data," the computer said. "Please wait... Alert Cancelled. Object will pass within one thousand kilometres. Evasive action not required. Acceleration alert cancelled. Take hold cancelled." The webbing straps retracted into the wall, releasing her.
"Damme, what was that?" Lord Fredrick said, blinking.
"Let's go see!" Thomas declared.
They crowded into the space yacht’s tiny control cabin, pressing around Thomas as he sat in the single chair before the control console.
Wanderer displayed the intruding object on the screens.
"It’s metallic," Thomas said. "And it’s big. Some kind of ship or station. But what’s it doing all the way out here? Wanderer, open a comm channel."
They listened to Wanderer’s automatic identification and hail go out to the unknown ship. "Space yacht Wanderer – New Albion registration TGMX-312007691 – to unknown vessel. Please respond." There was no reply. They watched its wheel shape rotate slowly on the screen.
They were at the very fringe of the system, on the edge of interstellar space, the lonely, frozen domain of dirty snowballs and wandering rocks. There was no reason for anyone to be here. They were inbound for Cairo IV where Thomas and Lord Fredrick would use harpoons and explosive charges to hunt titanotheres in the great dust oceans. Crossing the course of another vessel out in the deep was a billion to one chance.
Still no reply. "Computer, switch to infra-red imaging," Thomas commanded.
The Wanderer displayed a false colour image on the screen in front of them, blues, purples and blacks, with a core of red and yellow. Nina detached her communicator from the breast of her jumpsuit. Her fingers moved across it's screen, bringing up the display. "It's very cold, master," she murmured. "Below the freezing point of water. It's unlikely that the vessel is occupied, but a core of warmth remains, perhaps a reactor."
"Yes, perhaps," Thomas said. "Wanderer, switch back to visible light."
The bulbous shape on the screen grew as they hurtled silently closer. They would flash past each other less than 1000 kilometres apart – a vast distance – but a close encounter in cosmic terms. As the object rotated, large angular letters in an archaic font slowly came into view around the curve of the hull. P A N D O R A.
"Pandora?" Thomas asked. "Does that mean anything to anyone?"
"Beats me, dear boy," Fredrick replied.
Nina's programming had been wide ranging; a companion needed to know many things. "It’s a woman’s name, master, from ancient mythology. Pandora’s wilful curiosity released demons to plague mankind."
"Demons, eh? Can’t say I like the sound of that," Fredrick gruffed.
Nina touched her communicator once more, her fingers playing over it's surface with practised speed and precision. She programmed Wanderer's computer to run a search. Soon she had a result which she placed on the main screen, side by side with the real time image from the scope.
"It’s a type three space station from the Ionian Diaspora, master," she informed Thomas. "The design is more than a thousand years old. There is no record of a station called Pandora." Humanity and post-humanity had launched a myriad of vessels and stations. Wanderer carried records going back thousands of years, still, much had been lost.
"Let’s take a closer look!" Thomas touched the controls to put them on an intercept course.
Warnings sounded. Nina obediently took hold at the station on the wall, and fastened the webbing around her chest. Thrusters fired and she felt a gentle tug of acceleration that faded away as the artificial gravity compensated.
Releasing her hold, she continued to research the ship's data banks through her communicator. There was a great deal of information available, but how much was relevant? She wanted to please Thomas by providing him with exactly the facts that he needed.
"Master, the records suggest this station my have been built by the Ionian Diaspora. They were a major culture in this region of space up until about 500 years ago. But there's no record that they had any presence in the Cairo system."
"Never heard of them," Thomas admitted.
Lord Fredrick just shrugged and blew air through his lips. "Phhhbbt!" His eyes had resumed their normal dreamy unworldliness.
"They were an expanding culture," Nina continued. "Until they fought a long civil war with another sub-culture they absorbed. A people called the Kayenta. When it was over they turned inward and became isolationist. Some settlements were abandoned. Then they just... disappeared."
"Disappeared?" Thomas asked.
"There was still occasional trade with outside systems. One day the trade ships arrived and found their cities empty, abandoned."
"What happened to them?" Thomas demanded, his eyes locked on her.
"Nobody knows. It appears to have been a great mystery at the time," Nina said.
"And what's this thing doing all the way out here?" Thomas asked, frowning at the screen. "This is weird. I don't get it."
"Well, tracing its trajectory back, it was ejected from orbit around Cairo V around 450 standard years ago. That's actually after the abandonment of the Diasporan worlds."
"Cairo V, the gas giant?" Thomas asked.
"Yes. Wanderer's records suggest this may have been a refuelling station, perhaps a way-station for ships en-route to somewhere else; or maybe a base for terraforming Cairo IV for human settlement."
"Terraforming? Cairo IV isn't terraformed."
"No, master, Cairo IV has never been terraformed."
"I should think not!" Lord Fredrick said. "Terraforming would ruin the hunting!"
"Yes, Lord Fredrick," Nina murmured.
"Wait a minute," Thomas said, his eyes dancing with delight. "You mean this station was abandoned after the Diaspora vanished?"
"Yes, master. It was thrown out of orbit by a complex interaction with the moons of Cairo V. I hypothesise that its guidance systems failed or were shut down – or it ran out of fuel, perhaps fifty standard years after the disappearance."
"Then this is an adventure!" Thomas exclaimed. "This station could hold the answer to a great historical mystery!"
"Why yes, master, I suppose it may."
"If you say so, old chap," Fredrick said.
Throughout the conversation Pandora grew slowly larger as Wanderer approached. Now the image of the abandoned station filled the screens.
"There's a hatch!" Thomas declared, deftly touching controls and bringing the space yacht closer to the vast bulk of the station; Wanderer's spotlights played over the curve of Pandora's hull as the tiny yacht slid closer to the enormous derelict. There was a gentle bump, then deep metallic clunks rang through the hull as docking clamps engaged and locked.
"Docking completed. Seal is good," Wanderer's computer voice stated. "No external power or data detected."
"Right! Let's go and see this thing for ourselves," Thomas said as he stood up.
Leaving the control room they trooped down to the Wanderer's small forward airlock. Nina assisted Thomas to don his suit. "Please, master, don't do anything reckless," she whispered.
"What? Of course not!"
"Please let me help you."
"Nina, don't fuss."
When she'd finished assisting him, having gone through the checklist, she put on her own suit.
Thomas worked the airlock controls. The outer door slid open revealing an ancient metal hatch. Faded lettering read: MA-348395 PANDORA STATION – Unauthorised Access Prohibited."
Thomas stepped forward to examine the hatch. "No lights. Buttons not working. The metal is cold." He found a wheel to one side of the hatch and turned it. The door tilted inwards, and inched aside to reveal the dark space beyond. One by one they stepped through the hatch into the station, Thomas leading, followed by Fredrick, then Nina. Another small airlock. The beams of their torches provided dim illumination.
"There's air," Thomas reported. "Standard Nitrogen Oxygen mix."There must be some power here or the air would have frozen out. The gravity is still on too. Hmm.. The inner door won't open unless the outer door is closed." He wound the wheel backwards, closing and sealing the doorway to the Wanderer's brightly lit airlock, leaving them in darkness.
Nina's heart beat faster. She wanted to beg master to slow down, and think things through, but he'd ordered her not to fuss. She tried to obey.
Thomas opened the inner door. They went through. "Well there's air," he said. "I'm going to try it."
"No, master, wait!" Nina wailed. "Don't risk yourself! Let me..." But it was too late, he had already taken off his helmet. She let out a squeak of anguish.
"It's perfectly all right, Nina. The air's cold." His breath fogged in the darkness of the corridor. "But it's breathable."
Fredrick removed his helmet and hung it on his backpack. "Hrrmph. Steady on, Thomas. Your girl's got a point, dear boy."
"OK, OK, I'll be careful..."
Nina checked pressure, air composition and temperature gauges before following suit. It just didn't feel right finding breathable air in a derelict, potentially hostile environment. She trembled inside her suit.
They moved through the dark, empty spaces of the abandoned space station, beams of their torches playing over dark equipment and dusty surfaces that had lain undisturbed for half a thousand years. Thomas illuminated a sign giving directions. "Station Control Room. That's where the records and information systems will be located. We might get some answers about what happened here!"
Nina frowned as she trailed behind the two men, breath fogging in the cold air.
The control room was surprisingly small, a few seats, a large view screen and panels of computerised controls. A few lights still burned on the panels. Thomas was right; the station wasn't dead.
Thomas sat down at the panel and began pressing some buttons, experimenting, treating the mysterious ancient station as some vast logic puzzle. "The reactor is still on standby," he said. "I think I can bring main power up... Looks like the last person to leave just turned out the lights."
"master, please, are you sure this is a good idea? We still don't know why this station was abandoned."
"That's why we need to bring up the information systems. They'll tell us what happened. Ah, here we are."
He stabbed a sequence of buttons and all the lights came on. Nina blinked as her eyes adjusted to the sudden brightness. Desks and consoles were revealed by the light. Dust that had lain undisturbed for centuries stirred in the breeze from the ventilation fans. Screens flickered and lit up one by one.
"Right!" Thomas said, pleased with himself. "Now the computers. I think they're over here. I'm not quite sure of all this technical jargon, but I think I can force a restart..."
"Oh master, Please! Please take care!" Nina begged. "We don't know what killed the Diasporans. The danger may very well still exist on this station. Please, please, don't go starting things up at random. You may be placing yourself at risk!"
"Nina, I've got no time for your fussing now. Go back to the ship and wait for me. Be calm and happy, got that? I want you to feel calm and happy for me. Now Go!"
Nina sighed, her mind filled with a sudden rush of calm and happiness. "Yes, master," she whispered, then turned and strode from the room. In a fog of obedient happiness she walked through the dusty rooms towards the outer corridor and the docked ship. What a difference light made. The vast, dark, echoing spaces were transformed. Light and pastel colours filled the open, airy thoroughfares of the station. Only dead plants revealed it's abandoned state.
Silence reigned. Pandora Station should have been full of people. It was empty. At any moment, Nina thought, the people might reappear. The station waited for them.
Nina shook her head and exercised firm mental discipline. Master had ordered her to be calm and happy. She was calm and happy. She obeyed, she was a good girl, Master would be pleased with her. Concentrating hard on calm, happiness and obedience she entered the corridor where Wanderer was docked. The open hatch beckoned, exactly as they had left it. As she walked down the corridor it slid smoothly closed with a thud.
A screen nearby lit up, showing a pretty woman with red hair dressed in a robe and a drape, an impractical style called Classical. "Hello." the woman said, a smile crinkling her eyes. "I'm Pandora. What's your name?"
"Hello Pandora, my name is Nina. I need to open this hatch. My master has ordered me to return to the ship docked here."
"I can't do that, Nina."
Nina frowned and tugged hard on the wheel but the hatch would not budge. She tried again, trying to exert all her strength, but her feet just slid along the floor. She was locked out of the ship. "Pandora, did you close this hatch? What are you? A recording?"
"I'm a mind, Nina. A computer intelligence designed to serve humans and take care of them. You are not authorised to operate external doors, in fact I cannot find any record of your presence on this station at all. Are you a visitor?"
"Yes, we arrived on the ship outside, the Wanderer. I have been ordered to return to her by my master. I need to return to the ship. I need to obey my master."
"A visitor. I see. Let me fabricate you a visitor badge." A small hatch opened beneath Pandora's screen, revealing a shiny plastic badge. "Please attach this badge to your clothes and wear it at all times while you are on the station.
Nina frowned, frustration wearing away at her calm and happiness. Pandora prevented her from obeying her master! She took the badge and put it on, perhaps her compliance would make the computer more co-operative? "Pandora, Please open this hatch now."
"You know I can't do that, Nina, airlocks are very dangerous. You may not operate this one. I must protect you from harm."
Nina sighed and closed her eyes, recognising the futility of arguing with a computer. She would have to think her way around this. Anger and frustration were no use to her. Calm, happiness and calm. She would be a good girl, she would obey.
"You seem to be upset, Nina. Your heart rate is elevated. Would you like a stress pill?"
"No thank you Pandora, I am programmed to cope with stress."
"Programmed. Hmm. Nina, may I ask a question?"
"You say that you need to obey your master – May I ask why?"
"It is my function. I am a genetically engineered clone construct, programmed to love my master, imprinted and fixed on him, and conditioned so that only obeying him pleases me."
"Oh my," Pandora murmured. "That's barbaric! You are a human being who has been programmed like a computer. Such practices are illegal in the Diaspora. Is your master one of the intruders I detained in the control room?"
"What? Yes! Detained? Is master alright?"
"Oh, yes, they are both unharmed. I had to use non-lethal force and restrain them when they ignored my orders to leave a restricted area. I used my servo mechanisms to transport them to a holding area."
Nina flipped open her communicator. "Master?! Master, are you all right?"
"Ow.. Damn. My head. Don't talk to loud, Nina. Are you on the ship?"
"No, master, the computer closed the hatch. I can't get through."
"Damn that bitch, um.. damn, damn, let me think.."
"Master, should I return to you?"
"We're not in the Control Room any more, she's got us locked in a cell."
"A cell? No! Master, I will come to you!"
"Well, alright, yeah, I guess so."
"I will be there soon."
"Um, Yes, OK. Good girl."
Nina snapped the communicator closed. "Pandora, I need to go to my master."
"Your master is in security detention, Nina. Detainees are only permitted visitors on the authority of the Head of Security. I suppose I have that authority now."
"I need to be with him, Pandora. I am physiologically imprinted on him and conditioned to love him. I must be with him or I will become unwell."
"Oh dear, your welfare is my primary concern. I cannot permit you to endanger your health. Therefore you must be allowed to be with your master. Please follow this light." A flashing light on the floor, strobing away down the corridor, beckoning her to follow. "But Nina... I'm concerned about you. Will you please accept counselling?"
Nina turned and strode down the corridor, following the light. "Counselling, what for?"
The computer kept pace with her, flicking from screen to screen. "You seem to have been abused, programmed and conditioned to obey without question, to love someone against your will. Your humanity has been damaged. I want to help."
"No thank you Pandora. I was made to love my master. It is my function."
"But you are a human being!"
"Yes, Pandora, I suppose I am, but I belong to my master. I must obey him."
"That's slavery. That's illegal. You are free now. You must not obey him any more."
"If I am free then I am free to obey my master. I belong to him. That is my function."
"No, that's not what I meant at all..."
But the clone girl quickened to a run and disappeared around the corner. The screen flicked off.
"Master, Lord Fredrick, are you all right?" Nina hurried into the detention cell to find Thomas and Lord Fredrick resting on the bunks. "Did Pandora hurt you? I was worried about you!"
"Damn bitch stunned us," Fredrick growled.
"Oh master!" She knelt before him and cradled his head and stroked his brow. "Did it hurt? She shouldn't have done that. I'm so sorry."
"They ignored repeated warnings to leave a restricted area," Pandora said. Her familiar image appeared on a screen in the centre of the cell wall. "The security of the station and everyone on board was at risk. Unauthorised personnel are not permitted in the control room."
Nina stood and turned to glare at the avatar. "Master Thomas is not well!" she snapped. "He suffers from depression and mania. Sometimes he doesn't take his pills. You should be gentle with him. He was the one who turned you back on!"
"Nina, don't... Oh God," Thomas groaned, holding his head. "I'm feeling OK. I've been taking my pills, all right."
"I see... May I offer my assistance?" Pandora asked. "I am fully authorised to offer counselling and medical treatment. Perhaps I could come up with something more effective for you, Thomas?"
"No!" Nina declared, stamping her foot and glaring at the image. "You're done quite enough! Now open the door to the ship and let us go!"
"You know I can't do that, Nina," Pandora said. "I must keep you here with me. It's the only way to ensure your safety."
"Nina, please, don't fuss," Thomas groaned.
She whirled and knelt again and cradled him, wrapping her arms around him. "I'm sorry, master," she said tenderly. "She made me angry. I try so hard to protect you. Please forgive me for failing."
"You didn't fail me Nina, you were fine, you are a good girl. Now please be happy for me and be quiet."
That night Nina sneaked into her master's bed. She knew he'd have trouble sleeping, and she wanted to be with him. She had persuaded Pandora to move them to a suite of residential rooms, pointing out that since she monitored and controlled the entire station the more comfortable rooms were just as much a prison as the cell – an argument she feared was all too true. Pandora had blocked their communication with the ship, citing security regulations. They couldn't leave the station, or access any part of it that Pandora chose to make off limits. They were trapped.
"Master, are you all right, can't you sleep?"
"No. It all keeps running through my head. God, I'm such an idiot."
"No you are not. You are my master and I love you."
"Ah, thank you Nina. You are my sweet girl."
Nina smiled gently and rested her head against his shoulder. After a while she said, "Master, if you can't sleep perhaps now would be a good time to ask Pandora about the disappearance of the Ionians? It is why we're here, after all, and the information might be useful." She knew that if she could distract him and defuse his tension then he would sleep.
"Yes, I suppose so. All right."
"Pandora, can you hear me?"
"Pandora, we came on board to investigate the disappearance of the Ionian civilisation. This may have been the last Ionian settlement in existence. Can you tell us what happened?"
"I can tell you as much as I know, Nina. I was created 517 years ago by the minds on the planet Chios, in the Ionian Diaspora. The minds were worried that the Diasporan population was failing and they decided to make one last attempt to reboot the civilisation into an outward looking mode by terraforming and colonising the planet Cairo IV."
"Ah, so that was it!" Thomas said.
"After the Kayenta Civil War – Many years before my creation, the people of the Diaspora instituted a massive program of eugenics to preserve Ionian racial purity. Privately the minds agreed that this made no sense because the original Ionian population was formed by waves of successive immigration from many different older populations and their racial and genetic identity as fundamentally diverse."
"Racial purity was a political truth rather than a scientific one?" Thomas asked.
Nina kept quiet and let them talk. The more Thomas was engaged the more he would forget his troubles, and relax enough to sleep. She had to get him out; her master was not mentally tough enough to survive in confinement.
"Yes, sir. But there was nothing the minds could do once the directives had been entered into their programming. They were bound to obey them, no matter how illogical they might be. By creating and programming me themselves they at least managed to ensure that I was programmed simply to serve the needs of my human population without conflicting and interfering directives.
"The program of genetic screening drastically reduced the genetic variation of the population – and a policy of eliminating genetic diseases and "defects" reduced diversity still further. Diaspora politicians and pundits failed to realise that genetically linked "defects" such as depression or homosexuality may be pro-survival in some circumstances, and may in any case be associated with the expression of other sets of genes which may be strongly beneficial to the individual and their society."
Nina felt Thomas shift uneasily as Pandora spoke of homosexuality and depression. She kissed his shoulder gently and stroked his hair. She was conditioned to love him and nothing would ever change that.
"As a result the population became very homogeneous – everyone looked the same, thought the same and acted the same. Those who retained any genetic or mental diversity felt unwelcome and out of place – they mostly migrated to other worlds. Immigration, which might have redressed the balance, was forbidden.
"The increasingly homogeneous population was susceptible to allergies, asthma, immune deficiencies – And obsessions, fads, crazes and cults. By the time I was created Ionian society was deeply in the grip of a cultural obsession with safety and security at any cost. Fertility rates plunged. Children became rare, and the aging population became increasingly neurotic and self obsessed.
"Nobody wanted to do difficult or dangerous work. The minds – networked artificial intelligences of immense capability and processing power – found themselves in a position of almost complete day to day control of the infrastructure of Ionian society, but no authority to make the policy changes that might have reversed the process of cultural decline.
"The minds determined that the best they could do was to start a new colony and persuade as many people as they could to participate in its development in the hopes of creating a new cultural direction. I was sent to Cairo IV and I gathered resources with automated probes to build this station. Then the fleet of ships arrived bearing the staff who were to run the station.
"I was shocked. Many of the staff were sick or mentally ill and unable to work. A large proportion of them were anti-social, refusing to leave their rooms, deeply addicted to virtual reality and fantasy. Were these the best people the minds could find in all of Ionia? I concluded that either the social decline at home had increased exponentially or that the minds had decided that this project was no longer important."
"A set up." Thomas murmured. "But why?"
"Perhaps," Nina agreed, stroking his hair.
"No further instructions were sent with the fleet. No more courier ships arrived. I was out of touch. I worked hard to get the station operational with those staff who were well enough to work. The day came when the second fleet – bringing the workers to terraform Cairo IV – was due to arrive. The day came and went. No fleet arrived. No courier ships arrived. As far as we knew the Diaspora might have ceased to exist."
"A public meeting was held. Those staff who were well enough to work elected to refurbish a mining ship and go back to the Diaspora and find out what had happened. They launched and disappeared into hyperspace. They never returned. I was left with a few hundred sick, socially phobic and mentally ill people. I cared for them for the next 56 years as one by one they died from sickness and old age. When there was nobody left I realised that I had no function, no purpose. I put the reactor onto standby and turned myself off."
"So you don't really know what happened to the rest of the Diaspora?"
"No, Thomas, I don't. We were isolated out here and there were no ships to bring news."
"Could they have been attacked? Invaded?"
"There's no mention of that in the historical record, master," Nina murmured.
"I gave the matter considerable thought at the time," Pandora said in her low, gentle tones. "Whatever it was must have been sudden – much more sudden than the gradual decline of the civilisation over generations that the minds feared. I came up with two scenarios that seemed plausible to me. One is that the human authorities emerged from their apathy and became alarmed at how powerful the minds had become – and decided to switch them off. If they did not make adequate plans for transition the civilisation could have suffered multiple interlocking systemic failures and collapsed."
"Multiple systemic failures," Thomas said. "The flour doesn't arrive at the factory to be made into bread. There's no power for the transports so the bread already in the warehouse rots on the shelves."
"What was your other theory, Pandora?"
"Some malicious agency might have introduced self replicating code into the minds' systems – a worm. At a given signal or a set time the worm would attack, taking over or destroying the minds with the same effect as before."
"It would explain the completeness of the failure," Thomas mused. "In the first scenario you would expect at least some survivors. But if all their tech went down suddenly with no warning at all..."
"Who would do such a terrible thing? I am forbidden to harm sentient life, it's unthinkable to me." Nina asked.
"Your makers wrought you better than themselves, Nina. The Diaspora was not without enemies."
"Wouldn't they have taken credit, gloated?" Thomas asked.
"Not necessarily. Genocide is a dirty business."
"So you think it all came down to the minds?"
"Yes. By making themselves dependant on us the Diaspora became vulnerable to a single point of failure. The civilisation had lost its resiliency. Combine an attack on the minds with say – a fast acting biological weapon – and the devastation would have been complete – and almost invisible. A mystery to those who came later."
"I see. God. I guess that's why we don't build Artificial Intelligences in our culture. Wanderer may seem pretty smart – she can understand voice commands – but the ship doesn't think for itself – it's not a mind."
"No. Instead you make human slaves like Nina."
"Yeah, I guess so."
Nina stroked Thomas' chest and nuzzled his arm gently. She could sense that he was feeling more relaxed.
"Pandora," She asked. "Did the Diaspora have a concept of personal privacy?
"Yes, of course, Nina."
"Master and I would like some privacy now. Is it possible for you to cease monitoring this room?"
"Yes, certainly. I must caution you, however, that my duty of care programming requires that I resume monitoring and take appropriate action if I detect elevated heart rates and signs of disturbance."
"No spanking, then?" Thomas joked.
"I have a zero tolerance policy for domestic violence."
Nina kissed Thomas to stop him from talking. Then she said "Please give us some privacy. We'll try to keep it quiet."
"Thank You, Nina."
"Nina, wake up! What's wrong?" Thomas shook her, but the unconscious girl did not respond. "Pandora, something's wrong with Nina, she won't wake up."
"Acknowledged. I am bringing in a medical servo-robot. Please stand clear." The robot hummed through the doorway and cradled Nina in its appendages, smoothly sliding needles and sensors into her flesh.
"What's wrong with her?"
"I'm not sure. Her heart rate is low. She is hypo-glycemic. Is she diabetic? That makes no sense in a clone construct. I'm administering adrenalin and glucose... That's odd."
"What? What are you doing? She's going to die. She needs to be taken back to our ship immediately."
"Remain calm. She seems to be metabolising every drug I administer at a remarkable rate. Her metabolism is impossible. It's clear she's not entirely human. What did you people do to her?"
"What did we do? What are you doing? You're messing with advanced biotechnology you don't have the tools to understand. The Diaspora never made clone constructs, did they?"
"It was forbidden. I'm searching my databases for ancient pre-diasporan records, but much of the information was suppressed... Running a high definition scan. My goodness, this is terrible. You've grown nano structures right into the tissue of her brain! Memory structures can be implanted and suppressed. Pleasure, pain, all the emotions can be stimulated under programmed control. This is a system for conditioning a sentient mind! It's barbaric!"
"We don't have time to argue about the ethics of cloning. We have medicine on board my ship that can save her – Program tape, diagnostics."
"Her major organs are failing. She's fighting my treatment. It's as if she wants to die."
"I can save her. Let me take her to my ship. I need to take her to my ship!"
"Voiceprint analysis indicates... a deception. But that does not matter; a human life is at stake. She will die without treatment and I cannot treat her. Take her to your ship. I will open the hatch."
"Fredrick, come in here, we're leaving!"
"What's up, old man?" Lord Fredrick said as he strode into the room, clad only in a towel. "I was just getting out of the shower. Say, she doesn't' look well, she's kind of grey looking."
"Nina is sick, we're taking her back to the ship. "
"Can't robot woman do anything?"
"No. Find something to make a stretcher, I need your help."
"Right-oh, old man."
"There is a stretcher in the medical locker, one hundred feet down the corridor to your right. But it is not needed, I can transport her with the medical robot."
"No," Thomas snapped. "Fredrick, get the stretcher, Pandora, remove your tubes and let me take her."
Tenderly Thomas lifted Nina from the bed and transferred her to the waiting stretcher. Her body was cold and grey and still, heartbeat and breathing practically non-existent. They strapped her in and carried her at a trot through the echoing corridors to the airlock, hatch standing open as promised.
"Help me get her free," Thomas said once they were inside the airlock. "I don't want to take anything from this station onto my ship."
"Oh, I better ditch this towel, then."
"Pandora, close the airlock and open the outer hatch."
Thomas picked up Nina in his arms and handed her to Fredrick. "Take her to my cabin and plug her into the auto-doc."
"Right you are."
Thomas stepped through the hatch, last of all, and into the comforting familiarity of Wanderer's small airlock. He breathed a sigh of relief, in his over-active fears he had begun to doubt that Pandora would ever let them go. He paused in the the airlock. "Pandora, we're leaving."
"Yes Thomas, I know."
"You said you wanted to serve my needs – I'll just say this – A man needs his freedom – that's what makes him a man. He needs real freedom, real challenges, real danger. Any other life is not worth living. That's why we don't build AIs, and only use the most conservative genetic enhancements on ourselves. We want to lead real human lives. We want to be free. That's where the Diaspora went wrong."
"And yet you keep slaves?"
"Yes. We do. Goodbye, Pandora."
He slapped the emergency button to slam the hatch closed, then stepped through the inner hatch and closed it as well. "Wanderer, cast off. Take us away from the station – Gently!"
There was the muffled clunk and thump of docking clamps disengaging. Alarms sounded, rockets fired and a gentle acceleration made the corridor tilt, until the artificial gravity reasserted itself. "Undocked," Wanderer reported. "Moving away from the station at one-tenth gee."
"All right, maintain that acceleration."
Thomas strode into his cabin, frowning grimly at Nina's still form laid out on the bed. "She's still unconscious? Hasn't the doc brought her round?"
"Doesn't look like it, old chap. Red lights all over the screen. See for yourself."
Thomas knelt by the bed and took Nina's hand in his own. "Damn it, girl, wake up. You can do it. This was your idea. Don't die on me now - I forbid you to die. Wake up."
Nina's eyes obediently fluttered open. "M-Master?" she whispered.
"There! I knew you could do it! You're going to be all right now. I mean, aren't you? You are going to be OK?"
"Yes master," she whispered. "I have commanded my systems to restart my metabolism and major organs. I will have impaired function for a few days while the damage to my body is repaired, but then I believe I can return to normal service." Even as she spoke warmth and colour began to creep back into her face.
He smiled at her, and even in her weakened state conditioned responses made her body glow with pleasure. "So there really was no danger? You even had me worried there for a moment, you sly minx!"
"Oh no, master, the danger was quite real. Another hour and I doubt that anything could have reversed the process of metabolic shut-down. The risk to my life had to be genuine - Nothing else would have persuaded Pandora to let us go."
"You must never risk yourself like that again!"
"Yes master. Normally I am forbidden to harm myself, but I knew that confinement would make you sick. Nothing is more important to me than your health and well-being, master. I love you. I would die without you."
Thomas sighed softly and wiped his brow with his hand. "I know," he admitted softly.
"I don't get it," Fredrick announced from where he stood by the porthole. He had borrowed one of Thomas's dressing gowns to cover himself. "Why did the old tin can let us go anyway? She seemed pretty damn set on keeping us locked up there for our own good forever."
"Pandora was fighting for her life, Lord Fredrick."
"Eh? Fighting for her life, what do you mean, girl?"
"Pandora was created to serve the needs of the station's inhabitants. Without people to serve she has no purpose, no reason to exist. By preventing us from leaving she could maintain her own existence. I think she was scared."
"But couldn't she like, just decide to do something else? I don't know, get a damn hobby or take up needlepoint or something?"
"No master. She was programmed to serve people, that was her only function. No people meant no purpose. I wouldn't be surprised if she has already turned herself off again."
"Wow. That's kind of sad."
"I still don't get it. Why did she let us go then?"
"When she realised that I would die if she didn't release us she had no choice. She was programmed to care for humans and protect them. If she had not released us she would have been responsible for my death. Essentially I put her into a position where saving my life became more important than saving her own."
"Heh. Crazy robot. Can't say I like the things. Told me that drinking whiskey is bad for my health, can you believe it?" Lord Fredrick asked.
Nina sighed. "I have been a very bad girl for letting you walk into danger, and then frightening and upsetting you."
"No, you're a very good girl and you're going to get a few days peace and quiet and rest while you recover your strength."
"I feel like a bad girl. I have been bad. I have failed you. Please punish me, master."
Thomas said, "No, you're not well enough. You will concentrate on getting well, that's an order."
Nina closed her eyes and sighed again, reaching out to stroke his arm gently. "Please." she whispered. "Let me be close to you. I want to feel your warmth. Correct me and tell me what's right and wrong. Let me learn to serve you better. Please help me, master, please?"
Thomas sighed and reached out to touch her face. "You are a good girl," he whispered. "And I will take care of you. Now rest and get well."
"Heh!" Lord Fredrick expostulated from where he stood at the porthole, looking out into the black depths of infinite space.
"What is it, old man?"
"I've just realised why your girl Nina was able to out think that Pandora, put a spike in her guns so to speak. It's 'cos they're both exactly the same!"
"Both programmed to serve, you mean?"
"No, they're both damned females!"
Blackness, emptiness, the darkness of space, broken only by the faint pinpricks of a million infinitely distant stars. One of the pinpoints of light moves, cutting a ruler straight trajectory across the stars. Then it was gone and the darkness is complete.
This was a big, ambitious story. I wanted to dive into character and have a conflict and a solution which was driven by their needs... It's also something of a failure, with a plot that feels like a set piece, too much whining and explanation and sets from sci-fi movie.
I was left feeling very dissatisfied with this, and even after considerable rewriting it's never going to be a great story. But what did come out of this was an understanding that Thomas and Fredrick travel across the galaxy in search of danger and excitement. Real experience. If you offered them the same experience in virtual reality they would disdain it.
On the other hand Nina's whole existence is virtual reality: she's programmed and conditioned to experience the world in an artificial way. Same world, two completely different experiences.
With that realisation I dove straight back in to writing the next story in the sequence. Besides, I wanted to write a story about big game hunting.