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“You’ve got your martyr’s expression on, Star,” Archy said.
“The hell you say.” Then, startled, I said, “How can you tell?”
“Didn’t you know?” Archy sounded surprised, but it could have been my imagination. “Simon created a new program, Image Interpretation and Analysis. Your ‘Martyr’ look is filed between ‘Mad’ and ‘Myopic.'”
“My eyesight is perfect,” I said indignantly.
“I don’t think that’s what he meant.”
I didn’t think so either.
“Now you look kinda pissed off, Star.”
I looked at the viewer, half expecting to see the face of a cockroach in a derby hat peering back at me. “Who’s been teaching you that kind of language? Never mind, I don’t want to know.”
“Okay,” Archy said agreeably. “Want to hear about mehitabel’s extensive past?”
I gave in. “Sure, and put the coffee on while you’re at it.”
I know it is theoretically possible for a computer to mimic the behavior of anything, but the trick is in defining the ‘anything’ to the extent that the computer has an unlimited number of responses to any given situation. Most computer personalities I had encountered since the revolution in parallel processing began in the 1990’s were wooden and repetitive, if thoroughly competent, in response. Archy was more original than most, but that was because Simon was a more original programmer than most. He never stopped tinkering with Archy’s personality. I remembered coming back from one trip to Terra to find Archy talking like Charlie Chan’s Number One son and sticking “honorable mother” on the front and back of everything he said to me. When Simon started fooling around with Blackwell’s voice, Charlie taught her medical log to speak Tagalog, which effectively shut out Simon’s direct access, if not Archy’s.
I know, I was surprised, too, when I was looking for an excerpt to get your juices flowing and found that one. I was being just a tad AI prescient for a book written in 1992. Take that, ChatGPT.
“Don’t worry about it, Mel boy,” we heard her say.
“Don’t worry about it?” Mel boy said through his tears. “I sold you that claim for sixty thousand and now you stand to take a half million out of it and you tell me not to worry?” He sniffled.
“More like a million five, in Alliance dollars,” she said cheerfully. Mel boy sobbed outright. She patted his shoulder with a rough hand. “Hell’s bells, Mel boy, I’ve took enough to see me through the next twenty winters, and in Belt time, too. I give you my coordinates and you work over the tailings, okay?”
“I think I’m in love,” Caleb said.
“Control yourself,” I replied, “there’s Mother.”
Mother didn’t bother to look up from her interview with a man bigger than Tweedledum and Tweedledee, who had what looked like but could not possibly have been a bearskin draped around his shoulders. “I’m fine, dears. Go away, please,” she said to us, and continued to the giant, “Three wives? And how many children did you say you have? Dear me. And yours is the only family on–what was that designation again? 8482Sultan? Of course it is.”
Hey, I’m from Alaska. We have a line about gold mining in our state song. Of course I was going to write about mining in the Asteroid Belt.
“Okay, I’m going to take a short test flight, check out the equipment and the conditions. You stay put.”
“No fair,” somebody muttered.
“Stay put,” I repeated, “and watch me.” I circumvented further discussion by the simple expedient of stepping to the edge and falling off. I fell straight forward, arms/wings straight out, as I fell hooking my boots into the toe controls almost by habit, as if I were back on Orville on Terranova, as if I’d never left. It was like riding a bike; once you’ve mastered the technique, you never forget how.
At seven millibars pressure there wasn’t much immediate lift, but at one-third my Terranovan weight there didn’t need to be. I didn’t fall for long, with pressure gathering beneath my wings even in that skinny Martian air. I grabbed for all I could get and banked right, swooping for a dark patch of ground I’d spotted earlier, and grabbed the first thermal of the day to spiral rapidly up and over the Bookshelf. The controls responded like they were my own nerve endings. I pulled rudder and came in low and clean, a meter over the top of the little butte, scattering twins before me.
“Whoopee!” somebody yelled over my headset. “Ride ’em cowgirl!”
These kids had never seen a bird in flight before and I got a little cocky, pulled up too sharply and stalled. Nose down and around and around I went, pulling up well before impact but considerably chastened in spirit. Not chastened enough not to come in hot on final, though, and the expression on the twins’ faces, even through their visors, was worth it.
“Wow, Mom, that was cool!”
Sean didn’t waste time with words, shrugging into his harness and stepping to the edge. I grinned over at him. “Ready? Okay, go!”
We spent the whole day falling off the Bookshelf. Atmosphere wasn’t vacuum, and a rudder wasn’t a vernier jet, but in spite of their unfamiliarity with atmosphere the twins had been on friendly terms with the basic principles of flight since first-grade science. They caught on fast, and before dark Paddy had taught herself to snap roll, reminding me so sharply of Elizabeth and all the hours spent in the air off the North Cap of Terranova that the memory was like an actual physical pain. This time I didn’t run and hide. Where was Elizabeth now? What was she doing? Was she happy? Was she lonely? Did she miss us? We, the both of us, had in the space of ten minutes trusted the Librarian to provide for her every need, halfway across the galaxy from the globe that gave her birth, so far away from everyone and everything that was familiar to her. Had they?
“Hey, Mom, watch this!” Sean stalled and recovered, all in one smooth movement, homesteaded a thermal and began a smooth, circular climb. In an instant Paddy was on his tail, and I on hers.
The sun was setting by the time I called a halt. We barely made it back inside the Kayak before the last light failed. We were all sore through the shoulders and our calf muscles ached from the stretch it took to operate the rudder, but we assembled huge sandwiches and ate two apiece, slept ten hours straight through and were back in harness an hour after daybreak the following morning. I declared a school holiday and cut back our daily chores to the absolute, basic, must-do life support minimum. For the next week, we flew.
It was the best week of my life.
We’re going to Mars, guys, and when we get there some entrepreneurial genius is going to put together a Martian travel package featuring flying vacations. It won’t be as Star and the kids experience it, but it will be glorious. No competition from birds, either.
There is also a science fiction short story called “No Place Like Home,” included in my collection of short stories and essays.
By noon on Landing+2, we had water, about a liter, melted down from a core sample Hiroshi and Kirsten pulled out of the ground three meters off the starboard bow.
By thirteen hundred, Betty had run it through a filter, boiled it in the microwave and we all had a ceremonial sip of reconstituted freeze-dried coffee.
By sixteen hundred, Hiroshi, Kirsten and Aya had installed the drill, the liquifier, the pump, the filter and the catch tank and Boris had attached the flow line to the ship’s potable water coupler.
By seventeen hundred we had running water.
By seventeen-thirty Betty was boiling more water for dinner.
By eighteen hundred, Betty was dead.
Yeah, that’s right. I wrote a murder mystery set on Mars. You got a problem with that?
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.