Carol Judaska was seated when he arrived. The robotic chassis entered, its movements were placid and smooth with a highly utilitarian quality. A crown of tangled wires fastened together by a heavy black plug shunted into its forehead. It was skeletal thin and made up of a seemingly endless series of joints, motors and servos, they flickered and whirred with each precise movement. The robot was encased in a slightly translucent high-density polymer that left its internal structure bare to the world. Its face was plain, only vaguely human and coated in the same plastic leaving its internal workings exposed; a dim light pulsed from the general region of his mouth when the chassis spoke. Its eyes were reticulated and moved independently of each other. It scanned across the room and finally settled on Carol’s face. The robot’s hands grabbed its chair very lightly pulled it out and sat down. It thrummed its fingers along the surface of the table and waited for Carol to speak.
Cold sweat beaded along the back of Carol’s neck. She watched it, transfixed by its structure. The stillness of the room pulled her from her gawping. With this creature there was no sense that another presence was in the room, the feeling of being watched and the quiet assurance of pumping blood and a beating heart. She opened her file folder and finally addressed it. “What is your name?”
“Anthony Contadino Collodi.” The robot’s “voice” was warbled through an internal speaker without inflection.
“Why have you come to the Doctor?”
“I didn’t. He came to me.”
Carol looked over her notes and wrote a question mark into the margins. The robot sat back in its chair, almost slouched. Too human, too inhuman, nervous her hands clenched and unclenched as she spoke.
“You have lived in space your whole life?”
“Doctor Lokes’ treatment has been available for almost twenty years; why didn’t you contact him sooner?”
“I didn’t contact him.”
“Happy?” The word leapt from her mouth wreathed in disgust, but she privately hoped it came out as inquisitive.
“Yes. I’m not sure why I came; maybe I just needed to get it out of my system?” The robot fidgeted for a moment. It settled its hands on the table and laced its fingers together in a crisscross pattern.
“Why would you say you were happy?”
“I have become accustomed to my life. I enjoy my peace. I hear things, I know, I remember what it’s like out here. I am happy. I am comfortable.”
“I have Winifred.”
She flipped a few pages in the file and pulled a document free. “Your navigator, a brain in a box.”
“We have a lot in common.”
“I would like to conclude our interview at this time, come back to it tomorrow.”
“I would like to leave.”
“I’ll have the doctor contact you in that regard, but please stick around until he gets back to you.”
The robot nodded, stood and left.
Collodi pressed a finger gingerly against his temple as he dissolved his connection to the robot. His heart was beating irregularly so he activated his narcotic treatment to slow its rate to a safer level. The narcotics plowed through his system with alacrity. He twisted slightly and found his skin bumpy with gooseflesh, that hadn’t happened in a while. He examined the phenomena with his fingers tracing over his tiny chest and his shriveled apple face. The texture was transfixing.
He lost interest in his skin and looked over his vid feeds. The first channel showed him the medical frigate floating in space. The engines glowed at intervals slowly rising in intensity until they were as bright as they could possibly be and then just shut down to repeat the process all over again. His mind drifted and lifted from his body and floated out into the God Sea. He looked out over the medical frigate and passed over several portals in; some he could see people, others were empty, lit and unlit at random. He passed over one and recognized Carol. He stopped and looked in on her; she was in her room undressing. She slipped her bra off which revealed her heavy breasts, Collodi’s heart lodged itself in his throat. The dull fluorescent lights highlighted her imperfections: the stretch marks on her breasts, the scar across her thigh, acne on her chin, even the ridged indentation of her underwear against her buttocks. He fell in love in that moment. Her throat swallowing slightly as she pulled a loose t-shirt over her head. He wanted to see more, wanted to see her closer. Collodi floated inward and back to their conversation and stared at her. Her pulse quickened as the robot entered and she recoiled as it sat at the table with her. He hadn’t noticed the revulsion on her face before, he didn’t realize she was afraid of him. He watched her from his pod and saw everything the robot saw, but he couldn’t have caught her reaction, couldn’t have known she was afraid, it was too subtle, but maybe he imagined it, maybe he has conjured this revulsion in his drugged imagination.
He flitted back to the pod and fell back into his body. Defibrillated furling wires shunted throughout his dry husk body. A prismatic curtain of tubes and wires surrounded his infantile form and pulsed as he moved about the chamber operating instruments to measure speed, oxygenation of the varied decks and those controls responsible for communicating with the living human brain “Winifred” that navigated the bulk vessel through the void. He works unseeing, unadorned without any obvious humanity save for the blue tattoo on his chest that has grown as his body mass has shrunk, exists this bastard child of space. A deformed infant whose humanity has been stripped of aesthetic pulled a tube from one panel and moved it across the room to another. His body was decaying around him he knew, but she was pure, she wanted to help him, even if he didn’t want it she was kind she was like a nurse or a saint. Collodi’s head swam and he suddenly felt the gooseflesh crawling trying to pull free from his muscle. His face was slack and drooling floating helplessly in his pod without direction. He had to go, had to get away, he could never see Carol again and watch her horror grow. His fingers activated the engines by rote they heaved forward and he was away never to see her face again.
The conversation with the robot troubled Carol Judaska. His form was out of sync with her understanding of anatomy, psychology and empathy in general. She dealt with robots very rarely in her profession. The doctor occasionally utilized robotic armatures for dangerous or very complicated surgeries. The need for inflection, blinking eyes, random facial tics all played in her conversation with Collodi, she felt cold from talking to him.
How could it be happy? The defining article of the conversation and the crux of her distemper was happiness. He floated in space, cold, isolated, his senses were fed electronically into his brain they were synthetic. She couldn’t exist without food, mobility, vision, space; he had none of these things. Like a prisoner who chooses to remain captive after his release he will sit in his cell until he dies.
A knock on her door lifted her from her thoughts. She answered it only vaguely aware of the time. Doctor Bernard Lokes smiled at her through the door. “Our patient left.”
“Did you clear him?”
“Can I come in?”
She opened the door wide in lieu of a response. He made himself at home resting himself at her kitchen table.
“You think he’ll come back?” Carol spoke as she rifled through her cupboards to find glasses.
“I hope so.”
She uncorked a bottle, poured two drinks and joined Bernard at the table. He quickly took a pull off his drink as she set it in front of him.
“What did you think of him?”
“You mean his robot?”
“Yeah, I guess.” He messaged the back of his neck lightly as he rambled. “Did you get any impression about him?”
“For a robot his hands moved very well, articulate.”
“Fifty years he’s probably been doing that.”
“He says he’s happy, otherwise I couldn’t tell anything about him.” A hint of revulsion in her voice.
“The last time I met him was on his ship, his actual physical body. He was floating in front of me, no bigger then my dog, just little and He was very medicated, but he looked up at me.”
“His eyes don’t work anymore.”
“I know, but his face was turned towards me and he looked lost.”
“You said he’d been flying for two weeks, stoned and exhausted, probably barely knew where he was.”
“See that’s the thing, his mind, he was cogent. He was expressive. When we lose one sense another develops. His mind is all he has. Even drugged, even wounded, he was able to express his medical needs very clearly. Through a robot of course, but his face was moving. Earlier, before you were talking with him, he was just floating on his ship, but when he got into the room his body was alive, it was almost, loosey goosey.”
“He reacted to me talking with him?”
“Yeah. He reacted really well, so no I don’t think he’s happy. He’s alone Carol and it’s like the cave parable, he’s been looking at shadows so long that they are his reality. He can’t see the world behind him.”
“I hope he comes back.” She wasn’t sure where that came from, but before she could stop it it had loosed itself from her lips.
The space station loomed over Collodi’s ship like a renegade god. A tube moved from the station ejecting from its birthing point like a hurky jerky worm. The husky shadow of the trade utility vehicle lurched and shuddered as servos attached cables to the hull. Once attached several technicians adorned in the traditional grey overalls of the station with its corporate logo, an oversized eye with a computer chip instead of a pupil, emblazoned on the backs. They moved in unison their minds linked via the MLAN system required for these operations. Each becomes like a worker bee. An overseer on the ship coordinates them and they are only marginally in control of their bodies during their work shift.
through his gaudy orange vid feed wire Collodi watched over the technicians as they worked. His right hand moved loosely over the controls switching from one view to another to insure the cargo was stowed properly. He rarely transported such dangerous cargo, but business had waned after he lost a shipment in a meteor storm. There was more troubling him than just his volatile cargo.
Information (inventory, storage requirements and other special instructions) was uploaded directly into his brain. The brain then understands the needed information as it understands walking, writing or throwing a ball. This allowed for a shorter debrief on the specifications of the client. Ninety percent of the information was just understood and the only additional information was probably too new to have been uploaded. He activated his chassis robot remotely. The shift was never subtle. One moment he was in blessed darkness the next searing pain of light flooding his visual cortex. He didn’t care to use the robot, but he needed to look over the cargo one final time and negotiate a price on the shipment.
Collodi via the robot moved through the grime-covered hallways of the station. Technicians moved past him as he worked his way trough the halls their efficiency slowed his own progress. After a quarter of a miles worth of catwalks Collodi entered the Overseer’s office. He was a squat man with part of his skull exposed to make room for a logistic box, which hung, awkwardly off the side of his head. His radio and vid set were both on and very loud. He looked up at the robot and grinned. “Nice robot, older model, yeah?”
“I like the older ones, more style, good lines. The new stuff just ain’t got no soul you know?”
“I want three fifty per unit.”
“You quoted at two fifty.”
“There’s more than anticipated and more work will go into maintaining the temperature requirements than you lead me to understand.”
“The ZX model, I liked those, they were big, like tanks, just beefy machines, a lotta balls on those.”
He eased back in his chair, the logistic box pulled grotesquely from a flap of skin. “How are you gonna negotiate, you lose loads, and that means I pay two fifty.”
“One load in fifty years, load singular.”
“Yeah, whatever. Look you can have two seventy, that’s as high as I’ll go.”
“Two seventy and fuel coverage.”
“Just for the run?”
Collodi turned to leave; as he reached the door the Overseer cleared his throat in a fashion that indicated they weren’t quite finished. The chassis turned back to the overseer.
“We’ve had a few security issues the last two runs.”
“What kind of security issues?”
“Why wasn’t this data uploaded with the rest?”
“Slipped my mind. It’s good that I told you, wouldn’t want you to make that singular into a plural.”
Collodi quickly returned to his craft dissolved the link to his chassis and settled in for a bumpy run. He had never dealt with pirates. For him they were boogiemen used to keep traders alert. During a run there are twelve hundred things that can go wrong, but pirates were the most chaotic, ships get damaged in transport, meteors and solar flares rock the ship. The vacuum slowly pulls at the joints and then there is the laundry list of mechanical failures. Each of these has a system, protocol, not so with the pirate. You may lose your cargo, your ship your life or worse. There is no protocol save to run.
Space is a black void, but if you look long enough you can see variation and nuance. Shifting clouds undulate graying the black ever so slightly. Collodi had been here before, he knew nearly ever inch of the seven systems that made up his usual routes. It was hard to imagine anything beyond the void.
Stars blaze in the black some are bright white burning gods; others are dull throbbing reds and cold blues. They dance and shimmer in the void dimming and brightening with the passing of tiny planets.
Two worlds are close enough to the trade routes for Collodi to see occasionally. One is a yellow ball of sand pocked with dirty grey spots; the other a blue orb of ice and helium lakes. Between the two there are four moons three are grey husks but the frozen ball has one moon that blooms with volcanic eruptions and has a swirling gaseous atmosphere that makes it look like a tiger’s eye set against a bonfire. If a new sphere is encountered they are highlighted and enlarged as they move past to check them against known planetary bodies.
He couldn’t look around at his own cabin, but he didn’t need to he had every inch memorized. He could feel the slight weight of his cords tugging at the back of his head; he felt the cold of space when the ship shut down to minimum power to conserve fuel. He felt the vibrations of the ship as it worked, moved and cavorted along the trade routes.
He didn’t always make the distinction between himself and the ship. Sometimes he felt as though he were just another cog in the smooth functioning vessel. Human interaction happened so infrequently that he almost gave up the concept of humanity. It never lasted long, that feeling, soon enough he would set foot on a space station and upon viewing humans his heart would race, his mood would elevate and he would for at least a brief time feel attraction.
Carol and the doctor, Bernard Lokes, troubled him more than he thought. The twenty-hour buzz run to this sector gave him too much time to think. He hadn’t used his eyes, his ears, mouth or any sense save for touch in twenty-five years. He viewed his existence as a happy accident, when he was young all he knew was anger, frustration, needs that seemed important but ultimately were not. Once he was here in this space he accepted certain things and made the conscious decision not to be angry. God or the universe or perhaps the devil wanted him to be this, their wisdom or prank or cold logic couldn’t be fought.
Carol Judaska asked him why he would say he was happy and it occurred to him after that meeting that perhaps he was not happy, but content, or maybe content wasn’t even the right word, maybe complacent was more appropriate. The thought of having his humanity restored was unfathomable two days before, but once broached the subject was impossible to ignore.
He imagined having a new body.
Collodi passed a wreck. The innards of the wreck had been charred in a spiral design. Collodi scanned the region for accelerant traces and found only a few blips of radioactivity above normal, no causation.
“You are panicked.” Winifred’s voice was cold, but it was still comforting. Sometimes she was his unwanted parent, but other times, like this one she was his savior.
“I haven’t seen a wreck in a long time.”
“There are no other craft in the vicinity. This may have been a mechanical malfunction.”
“An ion pulse may have dissipated we wouldn’t find traces after forty-eight hours.”
“You are panicking. You have combined two mutually exclusive facts and come to an illogical conclusion.”
“Yes, you’re right of course.”
“I will continue to scan. If there is another ship we will have sufficient warning.”
“Thank you Winifred.”
“You are welcome Anthony.”
Intravenous narcotics pumped into his blood stream. He felt the cold push of fluid and heard the faint click of the activation protocols.
Cloying bitter odors wafted from the docking bay. The smell was accompanied by a slow creaking sound, made nearly deafening by the echo of it. Collodi switched his vid to those areas of the ship, nothing visible, nothing moving, but the sound persisted. He flashed through section after section bated by the sounds he heard sounds that were moving closer to his pod.
“Winifred, who is on the ship?”
“No one Anthony.”
Something banged against the door and scraped downward. Collodi motioned to the door like he possessed some magic that would stop whatever was on the other side.
Another bang and the door dented inward followed by another and another. The door was giving way and the cursed gravity generator was working at full on the other side. ‘I can turn it off.’ He thought as he turned to the controls. Gravity was already claiming the room he could feel his weight and he fell on the uneven floor of his pod bones mashing as he hit. He clawed towards the environmental controls as the banging continued to rip away the door.
“What is it? What is it?”
He turned to the door and saw an unassuming black man, wearing a black suit and red tie smiling beatifically as he tore the remnants of the door from its hinge. Collodi turned to him his heart was pulsing through the thin flesh of his chest and he could feel his throat closing in. The man crouched next to him touched him on the forehead and spoke to him. The words wouldn’t come out, the man’s lips moved as he reached for Collodi’s hand. He helped the wretched creature up to his feet. The joints twisting as his weight fell upon them. He pulled Collodi onto his back.
“You’re not quite ready.”
His voice no longer silent radiated into Collodi’s ears and moved through his fear addled mind and finally flowed molasses-like into his quivering heart.
The man cradled him and left the room. The hallway outside the pod was long, longer than Collodi had ever remembered it, but his focus was still on the claustrophobic gravity. The hallway eroded and became an oasis. A red sky burned above and alien flowers burst into flame around the man as he walked with Collodi gathered in his arms. The flaming plants launched seeds into the air where they were carried across the landscape to find new soil to birth from. The man walked to a cliff and held Collodi out over a swirling lake of magma.
“You gonna remember, you gonna be ready soon.”
Collodi’s mind was swelling with fear and hurt and rage and confusion and a million other emotions that couldn’t comprehend the impossibility of the scene around him. The man let go of Collodi and he felt the cursed gravity for barely a moment and then nothing the atmosphere evaporated around him. The weight lifted from him and all that was left was his voice screaming out over an empty ship.
“Yes, I’m here.” He moved his hands over the controls and let out a sigh.
“You were screaming.”
“I know Winifred. I’m fine now, it was just a dream.”
He tried to remember what he had dreamed but the memory was already fading and the more he grasped hold the more he lost of it. He drifted back to sleep.
Winifred plotted the accounts of piracy in the area and surmised the most likely angles of attack. As she looked over the data she detected a virus in the system. The virus was fast moving and she understood instantly she wouldn’t have time to alter her course. She quickly shut down all systems save for life support before her mind was swarmed with recursive data and she slipped into a data coma.
A cold nose was a consistent barometer for trouble in Collodi’s life. He didn’t hear well, his inner eardrums did function but were so clogged with wax and sweat that they only registered internal sounds blood flow, gastric movements and the like. He woke to a cold nose this meant something. He reflexively checked the ships systems. The craft was adrift. The only systems in use were oxygen to his pod and even that was at a slow trickle that left him breathless.
There was a ship, a small cruiser, perhaps a drone a thousand miles from Collodi’s craft. It flew slowly its signature barely registering, but it was there. Its movements were erratic and suddenly it buzzed at high speeds in one direction only to stop and drift for minutes at a time. Its zigzag would close in then move back, it was distinctly a search pattern.
Collodi pulled himself towards the patch of navigation equipment. His fingers ran over the ignition, he was breathing heavy and began to feel the pangs of adrenalin. His vid connection showed him the trajectory of the drone and the approximate time of interception.
Twenty-seven seconds. The drone moved within two hundred miles then zipped past. Its next pass would bring it within ten miles close enough for a fix on the meager life support. Collodi tried to focus on his options. The instinct to blow it out of the sky was overwhelming his thoughts and clogging other possibilities.
There are possibly seven ways to avoid being discovered by a passing craft in space. Shutting down all systems is perhaps the easiest, but there is always something to be traced depending on the sensitivity of the scan. One method involves a slow rotation around the pursuing craft staying in a minute blind spot. Another method involves a kind of sensor echo in which the ship bends the signal around itself somewhat like a prism. Each method involves a high degree of risk and usually requires a substantial and experienced crew. The common amount of time required to prepare for said maneuvers is around one to twelve minutes. Anthony Contadino Collodi’s craft was a Rentner Class Tug. Generally speaking the Rentner class Tug is maneuverable in the loosest sense of the word, it can actively move in three dimensions, but much like a chess piece its movements are tightly controlled. Trade routes move within three dimensions, however they tend to go in a straight line, Tugs are designed accordingly and they move with the efficacy of a turtle. It is understood that should a Rentner encounter pirates that they should acquiesce to boarding and defend their cargo with an able bodied crew from inside.
Collodi fired on the little buzzing craft. Its muffled explosion indicated that it had no atmosphere within and was a drone. Collodi quickly brought his life support back up to full, brought the engines online and throttled the beast forward with all the speed he could muster. He activated his chassis and set it on stand by for the possible boarding party and prayed actively for the first time since he was seven.
Irony does not exist in space, there is no coincidence, there is only the cold logic of the vacuum. The sheer distance between systems disallows the possibility that a craft will just happen upon another ship. Pirates were exceedingly rare simply because of this fact and the instances thereof were almost unanimously inside jobs where a craft was bugged with a tracking device, which allowed the pirates to hover nearby and wait for the signal. Collodi via his chassis searched the freight for such a signal and found it. He crushed it instantly with the hope that it bought him a few extra moments. The proximity alarms blared at him as he worked. There was only one weapon on board since Collodi could only operate one robot at a time and especially since he never expected this to happen. The robot gripped the firearm to his chest and worked his way to the airlock and waited. Collodi had visual confirmation of the ship as it closed on him coming from his fore.
Collodi’s ship was equipped with three high intensity lasers designed for breaking up meteors and other floating junk.
He fired off three bursts at them; they deftly evaded and moved in above the Rentner. A heavy blast from its ballistic cannons quickly disabled his engines and left him to work with momentum alone. He steered the ship up using a ballast pod in an attempt to ram the bastards, they took the full brunt of his hit and lurched in a corkscrew motion, a wing on the left badly damaged and there was a barely visible cloud of oxygen rushing out of the ship from a gash made by one of his sensor dishes. They fired again this time hitting his main cargo bay. Collodi panicked and quickly surveyed the damage to make sure nothing was in danger of igniting. His fears were materializing when he saw structural damage on one container. The vid feed confirmed that the syrupy material was leaking from a container, but had fortunately not ignited.
The pirates latched on to his craft and began to burrow into his hull; they were entering from the upper thorax of the ship. Collodi moved his chassis through his cargo bay to their point of entry and waited.
They breached the hull within moments and four men poured in. The Leech Craft was small, barely a quarter of the size of his ship. Their ship was designed to latch onto any ship and reroute their command functions so they could effectively pilot a massive ship without having to move the cargo. The pirates’ only real work was latching on, breaching the hull and murdering the crew. They spotted the robot quickly and fired on it. It took a quick hit to the lower torso, but was still functional and mobile, the chassis fell back into the main cargo bay, so Collodi could think and hide among the cargo he prayed they would not dare fire at.
They surrounded the chassis quickly and moved in with military precision. Collodi felt the walls closing in around him as he began to understand his fate. He couldn’t possibly escape and if he fired at them he would die. His mind raced through the possibilities. He could feasibly eject the pod and then have the robot fire. This would save him from the explosion itself, but the pod had no propulsion of its own and would be adrift. His death would be slow, but inevitable. Then he thought about blowing them up, himself, the ship and everything in between, he had contemplated suicide in the past, but the physical act of it was never considered, the how of his suicide was not considered. The explosion would be instantaneous and mostly painless, but there were other possibilities he could inject himself with an overdose of the chemicals he would just sleep and die quietly. Ultimately he did nothing, he didn’t act and the pirates disabled the robot. He considered his other possible actions, but his sense of self-preservation betrayed him.
His vid showed him the pirates as they moved to the door to his pod. He tried to disable the gravity throughout the ship, but his controls were already re-routed. He could only watch as they open the door and wait for his death.
Collodi felt weight and began panicking. His dry lips curled against his withered teeth. His eyes began to bulge and his tongue was sloshing from his mouth lapping at the air as his dislocated limbs tried in vein to thrash. Bones splintered and began falling in on themselves. He heard laughing and torqued his neck in the direction of the sound. His bones felt like sawdust mixed with muscle, he was certain he was now just a lump of fleshy tissue. Collodi grabbed at his head wincing and spitting in a vaguely serpentine fashion.
Wind howled through canyons, the sky was a miasma of swirling colors and Collodi stood feeling the heat and wind against his bare flesh. He felt the gravity and was standing upright. He began walking; his bare feet were tender against the sharp rocks. He found the sensations exhilarating and soon broke into a run. The path twisted and he found himself in a silent valley. The wind was blocked and all was silent. He looked over the strange flora around him. Tiny yellow flowers were budding all around him and their fragrance hit him with all the force of a wave and he fell over and into a small creek of bourbon colored water.
As he lay there feeling the wet, the heat and smelling the flowers he became aware of delicate footsteps moving towards him and he opened his eyes. A black man with a cherubic face in a rumpled black suit stood over him grinning in the front of the red orange sky. He held out his hand and Collodi grabbed hold of it. The man wiped his brow with a red handkerchief and began to speak, but instead of words only the sound of blustery wind came out. Collodi grabbed his head as white hot flashes of pain seared through him. Darkness poured from the man’s mouth and eyes and grew to absorb everything.
When he woke he felt the familiar vibration of his pod. Through his vid he saw his pod situated in a plain grey room and suspended by a crudely built tripod. Power conduits connected a bulky generator to the hull to create an artificial zero G environment.
A large bulky robot treaded into the room.
“I am sorry for your treatment. I would like to extend my deepest regret for the actions of my crew and promise you that it will never happen again.”
The robot looked like a standard construction drone, its body was metal and painted in familiar yellow and black stripes, its head was simply an encased work lamp. The robot’s head lit as it spoke.
“You’re in charge here?”
“Yes. I am Lauren Everett and this is my little slice of heaven.”
“You’re a robot.”
“Mostly, my body was severely damaged four years ago and my brain was housed in this chassis as a temporary arrangement, however times being what they are I haven’t had the time or opportunity to reverse my condition.”
“Why did you save me?”
“I am virtually connected to my crew throughout all their raiding parties and when I saw you I just knew I had to meet you and talk to you.”
“They nearly killed me.”
“I’ve already apologized.”
“What could you possibly want from me?”
“You’re story. I’ve been lonely in this body and my men can sympathize, but they can’t really understand, but you can. You’re like me.”
Collodi turned off his comm and sat in silence for a long time. Her head lit up, but he didn’t hear what she said.
“I have something for you.”
The robot, Lauren, imported the message directly into his vid feed. Collodi shifted in his pod trying to ignore the message. He looked grudgingly outside his pod and saw his chassis sitting next to the construction drone. The coronet was affixed to its head.
Collodi moved into the chassis and stood next to Lauren. She left the room and beckoned him to follow.
“I am sorry that we damaged you, your ship and your reputation.”
“No you’re not.”
“You are a pirate Lauren Everett, your position necessitates that your crew is amoral and that you are amoral.”
“I deal in theft and murder by trade, however when I extend my hand in friendship I don’t appreciate it being bitten off.”
“You chose our relationship, had my predicament not mirrored yours I would have been murdered by your crew. Don’t pretend we can have a normal conversation.”
“Oh and just like that you get to sit on a moral high horse. You were transporting illegal material used for the manufacture of explosives. Don’t you dare talk to me about morality.”
They stood facing each other in the hallway. The chassis’ hands were balled into fists. Collodi’s heart monitor sent an instant message suggesting relaxation techniques he could use to lower his heart rate. In the pod he felt a shooting pain in his arm and moved to activate his prescribed narcotics. His heart rate instantly lowered and his mood elevated slightly almost to the point that he forgot what he was so upset about, but then he looked down at the drone. She stood there no facial expression or body language to work from. A moment of sympathy shot through him as he suddenly realized what it was like to speak to him. He thought back to Carol and felt disgusted with himself.
“Do you plan on releasing me?”
“Possibly, but first I would like to talk.” The great robot swiveled and rolled down the hallway. “I would like to show you something.”
Collodi followed as she led him down the long corridor.
The pirate’s base of operations was a series of space ships interconnected by docking cables. The exterior looked like a junk pile of ships jury rigged together with no apparent rhyme or reason. Lauren spoke as they walked from ship to ship. She explained that their floating city was called the Junk Collective.
Lauren and Collodi walked for nearly an hour before She finally stopped in front of a large bulkhead. Inside the room was a series of chairs radiating outward from a central computer.
“This is how I stay sane.”
“What is it?”
Collodi walked amongst the chairs and stared up at the spider web of wires overhead.
“Virtual reality. This computer can simulate any environment and can transmit the data directly into your brain like an MLAN, but unlike the MLAN you can see, hear, feel, touch and taste anything.”
“Like my coronet?”
“Exactly. This is a more advanced model and its been modified slightly to be for entertainment rather than research. Pretty cool?”
“Please sit, I’ll hook you in.”
Collodi complied and sat, Lauren made adjustments on the coronet and connected him to the system.
“How will this work.”
It’s really not any different than your interface with the robot, there will be a buzzing sensation and then a moment of static and then the visual cortex should interface and bring you online. It will be a lot richer than your usual interface and that will be the most jarring part, just try to relax, you’ll pick it up quick.
The chassis nodded and lay back in the chair.
I am a trader. My wheezing uncomfortable spacecraft has been my home for five decades. My only remotely human company in that time has been my navigator who lives in a small box affixed at the base of my living pod. Her name is Winifred, though she has abandoned the concept of names as well as gender in the years since she lost her body.
My world is a landscape of boxes, buttons and blinking lights. Tuberous cords jut out everywhere surfacing like the backs of whales only to disappear again in the blanket of clunky meters and altimeters and gages. This decoration fills every available space save for the thirty square feet I occupy; which is split between two small compartments. The slow thrum of the collective life of the devices reverberates endlessly against itself creating a constant grumbling vibration. My body most closely resembles an infant as ninety two percent of my body mass has wasted away in this subzero environment. A rainbow of cords are attached to the base of my skull feeding me sensory information directly into my brain and supplying the necessary stimulus to keep my mind cogent. A catheter feeds into a recycling and purification filter; which funnels the fluid back into my body through another tube inserted into a vein under my left armpit to hydrate me. Under my right armpit another tube feeds me the necessary nutrients to sustain my life indefinitely. New water is pumped into my system at a rate of approximately a liter a day to prevent toxic shock. My blood is largely composed of a chemically synthesized semi-solid whose chemical composition I’ve forgotten over the last three decades. My joints are all dislocated save for the elbow, wrist and the various interphilangeal joints of my right hand. They have been augmented to allow me to utilize the systems of my pod. My muscle tissue has atrophied to nonexistence. My bones are brittle and would break if so much as a hand were pressed against my skin. My cranium is three times as large as the rest of my body. If I ever set foot on a planet with gravity again I will die.
I have existed in a zero gravity environment since I was fourteen years old. I was born in space and I have never seen a sunrise from the surface of a planet. The closest approximation I can make is the vids that are fed into my visual cortex from the various servitors I utilize to do business, but these are black and white ghost images and not remotely like the real thing. I have other visual simulators for my interstellar travel but they have difficulty configuring colors in any kind of atmosphere. There tends to be too much interference; which gives a hazy blurred image. The only homage to my former humanity is a tattoo of a naked woman on my chest. The colors have blurred and faded and the image is more closely associated with a slug than anything human.
As I said I utilize servitors to do business outside of my ship through the use of a coronet affixed to the crown of the servitor. If one breaks it requires an outside operator to transfer to a different servitor, but this is how I interact with the world and I have grown accustomed to it.
I recently received a communicae from a physician who tells me he has the ability to move my brain into a new body, a human body. He tells me that I can exist on a planet and have a new life. I don’t know if I want a new life.
Like many of my generation I was born in space on a Manta Corp. research vessel that was exploring a nebula cluster for possible free floating mineral deposits. For fourteen years I grew up, was educated and ultimately became employed by the same vessel.
I had developed for reasons unknown to me a reputation as a troublemaker. I was restless with life on the Manta Corp Research vessel and began actively rebelling. I devised a series of small scale revolutions that I felt assured me to be at least fired and at most excommunicated from my Sidereal clan. I began misplacing decimal points on excavation reports and maneuvering myself to accept the full blame. These infractions were deemed a computer error. Soon frustration became vendetta and I moved up to placing portions of my daily liquid ration in obviously dangerous locations where they would ultimately be spilled by servitor drones. I was reprimanded and summarily written up, but was still employed. I was made to work double shifts unpaid to make up for the revenue lost by my carelessness. The gauntlet had been cast and my need to leave became obsessive.
One day, some weeks later after my sentence was nearly done I found my way down to the main engine and pried open the panel to the primary coolant hose. The plan was simple, outright sabotage, criminal charges and excommunication to follow, but at least I would see a planet, touch down on an atmosphere that hadn’t been recycled for three decades. The grin on my face as I fantasized about my impending incarceration was trying to rip free smiling and chattering into whatever lay ahead. I pulled out a small knife and cut away the thick layer of insulating gelatin that surrounded the coolant tube. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, the kind of motivating breath that implied a silent contract of action, no turning back, no regret. I raised the knife like a bloody murderer and jabbed it into the thick milky tube. For a moment I kept my eyes closed and felt nothing, smelled nothing. In my self imposed blindness I thought perhaps I had missed. I opened my eyes slowly and saw the blade deep in the tube. The milky fluid dribbled limply from the wound I had carved. I pulled the knife away and felt defeated, folded the knife and put it in my pocket. I was still kneeling when the tube burst. The fluid within burst forth with gusto and sprayed me as well as a huge swath across computer banks, workstations and other various instrumentation. The machinery caught fire, my face burned and swelled quickly. Every pore on my body screamed.
When I woke in the infirmary I was informed that due to the carcinogenic nature of the coolant there was a good chance I may have some physical issues. The cancer that formed was violently fast it swarmed my nervous system in less than a month. I was still in the hospital when the doctors informed me that a cancerous growth had infiltrated my nervous system and that it was as prevalent in my body as marbling was in a steak. I was essentially doomed until the doctors placed me in a zero g environment to slow the spread and after several tests realized that the disease had gone into remission. However two days later it attacked again with a vengeance and spread like an advancing horde over my nervous system. This pattern repeated once more until the doctors devised my pod. The pod I live in to this day.
I see myself in the pod like an infant in a womb. I grow and the pod falls away like wisps of smoke in a dream. My muscles grow and reknit, I’m muscular. The rainbow of cords stay attached to my skull like dreadlocks. My eyes are still fused shut, but, unable to completely separate myself from the ship, they are replaced by artificial eyes protruding from my skull they are prehensile and mobile. They twist in directions impossible for human eyes. The tattoo returns, it sits boldly on my chest, a little hula girl with cartoonishly large breasts jutting out. My hula girl is grinning up at me, she likes the new me. I like the new me.
“Relax, you need to take it slow, don’t rush it.”
Lauren moved closer to Collodi as he built himself. She put her hand on his chest. Her form was human, more human than his. Her hair blond, her body attractive but unassuming, and she wore a soft gauzy robe.
“What’s happening? I’m confused.”
“You were convulsing. Your mind needs a moment to get used to its mobility here.”
“They stood in a grey waste, dust below and black starless sky above them. The dust twirled into little dervishes around their feet.”
“Where are we?”
“Artificial environment, this is Moon 1. We can go anywhere you want to though, see anything.”
“There are so many colors, I feel queasy.”
“That’ll pass. Like I said this is what keeps me sane.” She skipped around her hair floating around her head. Collodi watched Lauren as she danced, he tried to smile, but the motion jarred his face. His head felt strangely liquid, like it was sloshing around his skull and it required him to stay completely still lest he spill the contents of his mind on the grey earth. She picked up a rock and threw it into the blackness where it flew away into nothing. She turned back to Collodi. “This is just the loading screen, I’ll wait for you to get settled in and, um, to get clothes on before we boot up anything else.”
Sunlight arched through the sky and hit Collodi like old woman perfume. The sudden shift in temperature and airflow caused him to sneeze. Collodi’s eyes were squinted against the sunlight. Its glare more brilliant than anything his feeble vid screens could translate. He swayed in the light feeling the impossible heat on his face and body. Everything was still and all he could hear was his own heartbeat and the slow steady breathing of Lauren somewhere in his periphery.
Collodi was on the verge of tears and his voice was choked. He crouched grabbed a handful of dust and let it run through his fingers slowly. Each crystalline subject fell effortlessly except one. A single piece of dust hung in the air defying the logic of this world. He indicated it to Lauren who let out a ‘harrumph’ at the spectacle.
“The occasional glitch can’t be helped. At least not yet.”
Collodi stood up frustration flickered in his brain and soon grew. “It’s not real.”
“Nope. Next best thing though.”
“But it’s not real.” His mind was reeling. Virtual systems are linked to there users so they can manipulate the world around them in highly intuitive ways. The users also have to acknowledge a healthy suspension of disbelief, because the system is so reactive the distress of the subjects are played out in the world around them. Doubt crept through his thoughts and quickly poisoned the alien atmosphere. He was trying to lose himself, but he just couldn’t let go of the fact that it wasn’t real, that it was a dream. Lauren tried to hold his hand, but he recoiled from her touch. The world around him began shifting like watercolor and the sky began to stutter. White patches of static bloomed like storm clouds everywhere around him. He felt mass moving past him and through him undulating and swirling through his fictional body. He ran, seasons shifting with each step and all the associated discomfort of the world trying to assert itself despite his insistence that it not exist. Lauren ran after him yelling things that were unintelligible to Collodi’s rebellious ears. He just ran and ran and ran.
Carol pressed her temple and called up a SysCon unit, it would materialize in a template accurate form, in this case a large moon rock impregnated with a computer. She disconnected him from the user interface and left him in observation mode.
Cobbled stones soon replaced grey dust and rivers, buildings and people sprouted as he moved. Collodi crossed a bridge and moved into a shaded alleyway and finally stopped in a narrow doorway. He crouched down and hugged his knees to his chest.
“You a mess.”
Collodi heard the voice and at first didn’t respond, but it readdressed him and he looked up. A man stood over him. He was backlit by sunlight so his from was obscured by the heavy shadow.
“I know you?”
The man nodded. “I been looking for you.”
“You’re not real.”
“All of this is pretend. You’re an artificial intelligence manufactured by my mind.”
The man shrugged. “Maybe so, maybe I am just an imaginary friend. Right now it looks like you need a friend.”
“I can’t do this.”
“I feel lost. I want to go home.”
“Where’s that? Your pod, that’s not a home, it’s a tomb.”
Collodi rubbed his eyes and slapped himself as he rose to talk further, but when he finished his ascent the man was gone.
He walked along the cobbled streets like a ghost and finally moved through a figment crowd and sat at a table at a make believe bistro to soothe his liar feet. Lauren moved in across from him, she had a sad smile, Collodi observed.
Collodi nodded. Coffee was placed I front of them, Collodi touched the mug delicately. He could feel its heat before he touched it and was subsequently burned. He smiled at this exchange and took a long swig; it burned his mouth. Lauren laughed as he tried to hold the burning liquid blowing and drooling to cool it.
“I’ve never drunk coffee before.”
“You seem better.”
“I wanted things to be real, to be an alternative.”
“An alternative? Alternative to what?”
“A doctor has offered to give me a new body. I was hoping this would be a substitute. It is a very complex program, but it would still only be a substitute.”
She grinned at him, touched his hand, laced her fingers through his and he smiled back. “Sometimes substitutes are good, they ease the pain of waiting.”
“I hadn’t even thought about a new body, the technique has been around for twenty years. Did you know that?” She shook her head. “I never had time, kept focusing on the job.”
“I don’t have time to get a new body otherwise I would, plus there’s the whole fugitive angle that makes it difficult to set up so this is how I make it through. That big clunky thing out there is only a moment of my life, a chapter. I will not live the rest of my life without the sense of touch. You have a doctor offer to fix you; I say take it and move on with your life.”
Collodi sat in silence. He tapped his finger lightly against the coffee mug as he watched the digital steam curl in the silent air between he and Lauren. “What did you want to talk about?”
“Your life, my life, basically the stuff we’re talking about now.”
“How did you feel when you had your accident and woke up in that drone?”
“I wanted to kill myself and I would have, but something stopped me. This woman in the infirmary was pregnant and she was easily within sight of me. She went into labor, people were swirling around her. She was breathing, pushing, all that stuff and I just watched. When it was done she was smiling and holding this little pruny thing. I wanted that. I wanted to have a baby and I decided right there that I would be human again; I would get a new body.”
“It has been so long for me, you’ve been here for what, five years?” She shook her head, held up four fingers, Collodi acknowledged and continued. “Nothing, a blink of an eye, for me I can’t even remember food, its texture. I don’t know what I’d do with a new life.”
“What did you do when you were stuck in the pod?”
“It was cool at first, then it just was, the cancer went into remission and came back as soon as I got out. The second time it was like prison. I wanted to play, to work, to do anything, but sit there floating.”
“See, you made it here, to this place, and tomorrow or the next day when you go back to that doctor your going to wake up and be in shock until you get bored, you will get bored trust me. Even this is getting boring.”
She gestured to the city around them.
“What is this place?”
“Venice. It was my favorite, still is I guess. You nearly broke the software with that little temper tantrum of yours, by the way.”
“It’s okay, I worked around it. Anyplace else you would like to see?”
He shook his head and stood up. Lauren giggled as he rose; he looked down still confused by her out burst.
“You’re still naked “
“I have been for half a century.”
She nodded her understanding
They returned to the virtual world the following day and together they walked amongst the stars. They were like Gods in the void peering over planets and moons along the vast spiral of a galaxy.
“Why would you choose space?”
“I don’t know anything else. I might conjure a city, but it would be built with crayon walls and put together with tape and paste.”
“I think I would like that.”
“You’re not much of a pirate.” He grinned at her.
“I suppose not, but then again you’re not much of a courier.”
“I’m going back.”
“I know.” A tiny nebula slid between them as they spoke.
Collodi felt hollow back in his ship, the brief reprieve of the virtual reality still asserting itself in his mind. He sighed heavily and ventured back into the black. Winifred was still unconscious from the pirate’s initial strike so Collodi went through the various charts and plotted his course manually. Lauren claimed the cargo so he left empty handed, but he figured it was the price paid for his newfound clarity.
Doctor Bernard Lokes stood in the docking bay and smiled as the chassis worked its way down to him.
“Welcome back Anthony.”
“Please, call me Collodi.”
They walked and talked and there was some discussion about the parameters of the new body. The questions Collodi asked were diagnostic in nature while the answers given were of the humanistic kind.
“This body will be yours. No vid wires, no feeding tubes all the freedoms most people take for granted will be yours. Can you get sick? Of course, it is a human body, not an android or a robot. You can bleed, get sick, etcetera all these things will be open to you again; you could even reproduce, even start a family.”
“What will the body look like?”
“Male, average height, weight, hair color as you like it and predominantly anglo features. You won’t have your original features.”
“No of course not, but I do have some specifications some nostalgia to put in place.”
“Yes of course, we’ll do the best we can to honor your wishes.”
They toured the operating theatre. Collodi paused and ran his synthetic fingers over the instruments of his release. The chassis’ hand couldn’t convey the chill of the instruments to Collodi’s actual senses he just looked them over, drifted back to the moon and remembered the feel of the moon dust as it sifted through his imaginary fingers.
Collodi moved through the medical frigate His head bowed looking at the bluish track lighting along the floor as he walked. Conversations were taking place all around him, mostly muffled, but as he listened to the murmur each phrase he caught seemed to speak to him. “What will you do now?” wafted his way from one room while a “be brave…” hit him from the next. The cacophony struck him as spiritual omens spoken from the ghosts of his long lonely life. He kept his steady pace deck after deck listening to the wisdom of the chaos around him. He felt someone trying to reach out to him, not in a physical sense just in that dreamlike push of the cosmic whatever, his thoughts drifted to the little man that kept visiting him. As he tried to focus on the man in black suit and red tie it became harder to concentrate, the more he tried to remember their conversations the more he drifted away.
Collodi stood in front of Carol Judaska’s door. She was sleeping inside. The soft purr of her breath made him fearful. He thought back to the drug induced fever dream that prompted his flight and was reminded of the disgust on her face. He backed away from her door and pressed himself against the opposite wall. His mind started to race and he shivered in the pod. The pod suddenly seemed so small and he imagined himself to be a tiny compartment in the robot chassis, he felt the weight of the robot all around him. The pod, the Rentner class tug, everything ceased to exist there was only he and the robot waiting in front of Carol’s door. Simultaneously fearing the moment she opened the door and wishing to God that she would rush out and decide to love him. Carol became the embodiment of every woman he ever pined for, every woman who feared him for his misshapen form. Carol was not just Carol, she was Lauren Everett, she was Winifred, she was every woman and every man he had ever been attracted to socially, physically, spiritually. All formed in Carol Judaska as Gestalt.
Collodi via the chassis fell to the floor. In his pod Collodi’s heart thudded against his fragile ribcage. His good limb twitched and he felt a suffocating pain rush through his body. Winifred wasn’t there to start the narcotic drip and he no longer had the where withal to do it himself.
His next hours came in a flash of images. Carol on his vid screen, an unknown man in white in his pod, a plastic incubator-like box, light, silver flashes of tools and finally a mask over his face. He lay on the table. As the doctors worked on his new body and prepped his old he saw the old black man in the crowd watching, smiling.
An ocean swept over him, he was floating on a river in Venice bobbing up and down rebounding lightly against support beams and gondolas. The virtual Lauren Everett looked down on him and reached out, lifted him into the air, his infant body weightless and hanging loosely. He had no strength to move his limbs he just drifted upward over the city looking over the buildings and cathedrals, watching the tiny people scurry about below some staring up at him others moving about their business unaware of his gaze. He saw the continent with its endless fields, valleys and craggy shores and finally lifted through the clouds into the upper atmosphere. His form was shifting, the first thing he was aware of was his arms that flexed and bulged as he moved them in unfamiliar patterns of motion followed by his chest which allowed room for his organs to expand and his heart to beat with a ferocity he didn’t recognize it to be capable of. His head was growing now and though there was a slight throbbing the sensation that overwhelmed him was one of sudden inexorable relief. Oxygen poured into his faculties and made him light-headed. He looked around and saw the moon and the footprints he left there during his brief visit. His legs grew as he lifted ever upward and faster through space faster than his ship could go, faster than the leech ship faster than anything he had ever experienced. He swooned from the speed of his travel. He finally descended upon a planet and saw the tiger’s eye moon. He dropped into the eye’s atmosphere watched the shifting red and yellow clouds as he touched down. Its terrain was familiar to him, the glass sharp rocks and the flowers that conflagrated around him rising up into the sky to spread and grow. He felt the hot wind as he walked on his own legs and found his way to the tiny valley he knew would be there.
The man stood in front of Collodi. He wore the same black suit, the same red tie and the same bemused expression on his face. Collodi grabbed his outstretched hand and shook it.
“I knew you would come eventually.”
“Please tell me who you are?”
“My name is Eleggua. My friends they call me Legba, but you, you can call me Eshu.”
Collodi shook his head with confusion.
“I do lots of things, but in this case I keep the crossroads.”
“I already made my choice.”
“No. The real choice is still comin’”
“Tell me what’s happening.”
“I want to know.”
“I don’t care what you want. I care what you need.”
“I need to know.”
Eshu shook his head and began waking away. Collodi emboldened by his new body grabbed Eshu’s shoulder, spun him around and ripped at his lapels. The smile was gone from Eshu’s face, it turned cold and he stood suddenly taller than he ever had before. His body grew massive and menacing, his clothing ripped away leaving a warrior’s garb in their place. He gnashed his teeth and spat at Collodi. He gripped him around the throat and lifted Collodi off the ground.
“Boy! I love you or I would not have come, you need to learn respect! You need to see without them drugs and dreams and video screens.”
He dropped Collodi without another word and vanished as Collodi gasped for air. After the adrenalin died away he lay back against a patch of rock and let the dream take him again, but it would not. All he saw was darkness and felt a cool wet sensation against his lips.
He tried to open his eye to the planet again, but it was already gone. His eyes burned from scant flecks of light that seemed to burrow into his nerve endings. His throat was raw and dry, but there was another presence in the room, someone was feeding him ice chips slowly letting them melt against his lips and drip down into his throat. He jerked to the side and startled whoever it was next to him. A female voice cried out and flipped a light switch reflexively. The light poured into his visual cortex with enough force to knock him from his bed. Searing pain surrounded him. The cold floor stung his feet. The screech of the woman pierced his brain. Something metal behind him jabbed at his side and erupted against his fledgling nerve endings. Even the taste in his mouth, every sense was bombarded. His brain finally gave up the ghost and he passed out from sensory overload.
A female voice, Carol’s voice, he had been waiting for her since he woke up, since the day he was attacked by his own senses. She smiled at him as he slowly roused himself. He was still getting used to the novelty of a bed and luxurious way it made him feel as he woke from a good sleep.
“We are coming planet-side; I thought you might like to see the surface.”
Collodi nodded, groggily.
“Excellent, first I have been instructed to do a check up. The reflexologist and your physical therapist tell me you’ve advanced very quickly. Twelve weeks, very impressive.”
He still touched his throat as he spoke. He rose from the bed and got dressed quickly. He had lengths of the pod’s cords attached to his head and had his tattoo redone in accordance to his virtual self. He told himself it was so Lauren would recognize him if he ever met her again. Privately he wanted a keepsake of his years in the pod.
Carol ran him through a small battery of tests. He could balance well enough, hold different items, walk across the room, even jog. She checked his eyes nose and throat with various instruments and knocked his knee with a tiny rubber mallet. Her forehead creased at the reaction.
“Your reflexes are a little off.”
“Is that bad?”
“Maybe not, it’s possible your nervous system is still trying to integrate, but it’s definitely something we should test further.”
“After we go to the planet?”
Carol hesitated, but the insistent look on Collodi’s face softened her resolve.
“Sure. I don’t see a problem with that.”
Collodi and Carol landed in an industrial complex. An army of workers moved frenetically around the shuttle. Collodi stopped and looked up. A span of indigo lay out before him decorated with vibrant flashes of color all over the sky. Different spacecraft were leaving the atmosphere and entering and maneuvering in the night sky creating a calliope of colors Collodi had never seen with the naked eye. The smell of fuel and smog was pungent, but not all together unpleasant. It reminded him of something, but he couldn’t place it. It was different from the docking bays on the various stations he delivered to and from, but it was still familiar. Carol finally tugged at him and he realized he was about to be swarmed by a pack of uniformed workers.
“Where are we?”
Carol nodded as they rushed inside a large concrete building.
“What are we doing here?”
“Business, resupply mostly.”
“Is it all like this?”
Carol shook her head as they walked. They made their way to a bullet train and rode it to San Francisco. Carol explained things as Collodi pointed them out as the train sped by. Vehicles he had never encountered and only partially remembered from school. She described parks, schools, different jobs that exist on the planet. His mind was swimming by the time they stepped out onto Church Street. He kept pointing at the buildings as they walked and at several intervals ran into people. Finally they found themselves at a restaurant.
“Didn’t you see some of these things in the virtual reality simulation?”
“Yes, but it doesn’t come close to this. It’s hard to explain. Those things were close to real, but they were still fake; a tactile difference that is, um, ineffable.”
“Yes well I would agree real is always better than simulation.”
“I hesitate to ask this, but what have I got to lose? Why are you being so nice to me now?”
Carol was struck by the intensity of the question and found herself momentarily speechless.
“Bad timing, you know, forget I asked, just, sorry.”
“No, not at all. It’s a valid question. I felt bad when we last spoke. My reaction was callous and uncalled for.”
“I was speaking to you through a robot. Most people react poorly in those circumstances.”
“It took me awhile to get over our conversation. I was embarrassed. That’s why I stayed away.”
Collodi shrugged, and quietly discouraged himself from continuing his line of questioning preferring discretion.
Food arrived and Collodi ate with gusto. He drank coffee, liquor, everything, anything that was put in front of him. The headache struck him as he downed his third ouzo. He fell to the side as if struck, his hand flew to his forehead and his body began twisting like a dog chasing its own tail. Carol’s reaction was instantaneous. She rolled a napkin tightly and shoved it between his teeth, and held on tight until the seizure faded.
“We need to get back to the frigate.”
Collodi stood slowly acquiescing to her command. Slowly they stepped out onto the street and clumsily headed for the bullet station. In his stupor Collodi jammed his shoulder into a man and fell against a wall. Carol apologized profusely and Collodi opened his eyes looked up and saw Eshu. He smiled at Collodi as Carol apologized to him.
Collodi sat against the wall as Eshu wandered off and Carol turned back to him. He knew what would happen next. Together they would return to the frigate and discover that the cancer had returned and will advance quickly. He had walked this path before, he could live but until they find a way to halt the cancer he would sit in the pod floating in space alone, disgusting.
Carol pulled him once again to a standing position where he leaned heavily against a wall.
“I’ve made my choice. I want to see a sunrise.”
He pulled her close and touched her face, she was frantic “We have time, if we get you back now we could do something. Anything, it’s better than dying.”
“I can see now, without the drugs, the dreams or the vid screens and this is where I’m staying. You go back if you want to, but I am going to enjoy my last night.” He kissed her lightly on the forehead turned away from her.
Collodi’s body was shivering uncontrollably, but he had gained a small portion of his strength back and began hobbling without the wall.
Carol watched him and felt her hands clench and unclench, the world around her was closing in and she felt all the tiny spasms of her environment, the dull electric growl of the street lamp above her, the whooshing sound of the VTOLs as they buzzed around the city. She heard the dull clap of the bullet train leaving its station, felt the proximity of people as they passed her on the street, and the expanse of the world around her. Then she imagined the pod, the thought struck her, jabbed in her mind and wouldn’t release. She wanted so much to take him back and maybe find a way, but the pod kept her.
Collodi felt the cancer creeping up inside of him, it would win the fight, but Collodi pushed through the pain and watched as the sun crept up over the city. Collodi absorbed each color and took them into his heart. Just as the day began, just as the intensity became absolute Collodi let the disease claim him and despite the pain he couldn’t help but laugh this bastard child of space got to see his sunrise.