By Roxanne Gregory
I was morosely watching an ancient survivalist AR featuring an idiot named Bear who was relishing drinking his own urine, when ANU interrupted.
“I’ve calculated the risks,” ANU said, his click-click-whirr voice evenly modulated. ANU was short for the guild’s sub-class of AI Algorithmic Navigation Units.
I sighed, waiting… ANU was my last link with home-world sanity. I was overdue for an extended mental health break – or at least a few months in a deluxe dream-world stasis pod.
“Option one,” he purred. “If you do nothing at the current rate of decline, you have essential life support without propulsion for 18R.”
“Option two?” I asked hopefully.
“You could try navigating the Corinium debris fields, setting a course for Sigma 999.”
“Sigma 999? It’s waaaay off the survey grid.”
“Sigma 999 has Au deposits, and an environment that could support your biology,” ANU mechanically intoned.
“I don’t know shite about mining and refining Au, never mind manufacturing propulsion filaments.”
“You forget, Anna. I’ve access to the archival databases, including the historic Ooogle.”
Shite! Substandard propulsion filaments and a breakdown on the outer-edge of nowhere! Never mind a smart-ass ANU with a DYI fix-it scheme. Oh, did I fail to mention how thrilled I was at the proposed sphincter-clinching, potentially deadly, ‘skillful navigation’ through the Corinium debris fields in a ship with failing propulsion filaments?
“If we navigate the Corinium debris fields, and land safely on Sigma 999, you and your databases are going to teach me to find, mine, refine and manufacture Au filaments and repair the propulsion core?”
“You’ll need assistance,” ANU said.
“And you’re it?”
“ANU, define ‘not exactly’.”
“Not exactly, an adverbial phrase meaning inexact. E.g., by no means, certainly not, hardly, in no manner, in no way, not at all…”
“No, ANU, I’m not looking for the Ooogle-iki answer, I mean in this instance.”
“Scanning Sigma 999, I’ve detected terrestrial, bipedal life forms.”
“Gods! Way out here? Who would seed life way out here?”
“I don’t know their seed origins, Anna.” ANU said sheepishly, as if this knowledge gap in his eclectic databases was a shameful flaw.
“ANU plot the best biologically-secure course through the Corinium fields and can you charge those stunners? Never know when I might need them.”
I was as much an anachronism as ANU was an antique AI-of-all-work. At the end of the third millennium, surveying as an occupation had been taken from biologics and replaced by AI-ANU’s. However, after the unanticipated, debris-field collision of an Elon Transporter with 3,000 colonists, the Nav-Guild insisted biologics would have never missed charting that debris and biologic surveyors were reinstated by the Imperium.
Gut-wrenching wasn’t the best adjective for our trek through the Corinium debris fields. For 16 hours we raced the gauntlet, side-slid the slingshot gravitational pull from an unexpected, tiny wormhole; (any WH no matter how small could warp time, and true to my profession, I mapped it), and managed to reach the outer debris field, when we were t-boned by a translucent iceberg of debris.
My last memory was of ANU valiantly struggling to activate the AP.
When I came to, acrid ozone filled the air and everything was dark. Even the low hum of the engines, like a womb-like mother’s heartbeat, was still. When you and generations of your family have grown up far out in the deep on surveying ships like I had, silence is absolutely terrifying.
Silence means you’re not moving. Ships that aren’t docked and aren’t moving are targets, or they’re marooned in some godforsaken corner of the survey grid. Living through a crash isn’t necessarily a good thing.
I couldn’t tell if we were drifting in the debris fields; in orbit above Sigma 999, or if ANU had worked his final algorithmic magic and we’d crashed on Sigma’s surface. Uncertainty gnawed at me.
My choices were few, but without power, there would be no re-circulated air, no stasis. I couldn’t estimate the amount of airtime I had, because I didn’t know when we stopped moving.
I decided I wouldn’t choose a stasis slow-death. I’d eat a celebratory meal, toast the generations of my family who had chosen this life, and manually open the airlock.
With what was perhaps my last meal, I even had a cup of cold tea; the tea was real, whole-leaf Terran! I’d liberated it from a distracted smuggler on Serket.
When he wants you, Mr. Death will find you. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, who you’re snogging, nor how many credits you’ve amassed. Except for the Isosceles, who age very slowly on their home world, no beings anywhere elude Mr. Death’s icy grasp for long.
I gripped the airlock door’s manual mechanism with steady hands. If I was still in the Corinium debris fields or orbiting Sigma 999, I’d be meeting Mr. Death in seconds. Being sucked through an airlock is a quick, cold, breathless death.
Turning the manual-override handle, I pushed and met resistance! Maybe it was damaged in the collision. Grabbing a segment of railing with super-biologic effort, I wedged the railing into the door seal and pushed. Nothing. I jumped onto the railing, and the door gave slightly but there was no sucking vacuum sure to kill. Instead, like a gentle Serket rain, dun-coloured sand trickled inside.
Sand continued gently cascading through the airlock until it had built a pyramid- shape almost a meter deep. Then– a rush of air — dry, dusty, but breathable! Through the broken seal, I could see blue light! I pushed hard against the door and it opened. I paused before grasping either side of the doorframe, and hauled myself out of the airlock and into the sere desert. My ship was almost completely buried. Humongous sandy dunes stretched three-sixty around me. Sweat instantly peppered my face. Too hot!
Retreating inside, I waited for nightfall.
I spent the wait gathering essentials. I found a stunner, and an ancient, portable, all-weather nav unit. Antiquated tech, it did have an old Ooogle grid-mapping app; at least I’d be able to key coordinates and find my way back. I set the nav guide to Prime Meridian.
I spent two solar nights and days in the dunes before I felt moisture. Like a siren’s song, it caressed my blistered face and then I heard sounds.
Wailing and weeping made the fine silver hairs stand on the back of my solar-burned neck. Cresting a dune, below me was a desert wadi with lush green plants. The wailing came from a knot of bipedal humanoids. They were screaming at a smaller humanoid floating in the water. One creature, was pulling her hair, beating her breast and wailing with the anguish of the bereft.
Thirst drove me as I stumbled down the dunes. Pulling the stunner from my pack, I waited for their reaction. Their wailing stopped and they stared. Like gazelles before a lion, they bolted leaving the partially-submerged little one.
Dropping my pack and stunner before wadding into the water, I gulped brackish, water that was wonderful! I waded in chest high until I reached the little one. Dragging it from the water, I turned it over. It didn’t move. Humanoid-like, it was bronze skinned but blue-lipped. Its orbit-skins were closed. Kneeling, I listened — no breath. Remembering all the hours I’d watched survivalist AR’s, I pinched its tiny nostrils, opened its mouth and breathed into it. I breathed again and pressed the centre of its chest, hoping it might help. Rhythmically pressing and breathing, time paused then suddenly it convulsed, coughed and began spewing foul water and partially-digested food. It opened its deep brown eyes.
Involuntarily, I smiled. I must have been frightening, with my blistered, elongated-head and golden skin peeling from my solar-burned face, but the little one actually smiled at me!
Suddenly, a pointed projectile buried itself deep in the sand beside us. On the dune above was a member of the little one’s group, with six or seven tall, tattooed warriors armed with long sticks. They were out of stunner range.
I bolted into the desert. They followed me, but by the second night I reached my ship.
The following morning, I was startled by persistent banging outside. Armed with a piece of railing, I opened the airlock door.
Outside was the little one I’d pulled from the water. To my astonishment, he proffered a woven-rush basket containing my pack, stunner, and some fruits.
Taking the basket, I put my hand to my chest, “I’m Anna.”
His eyes sparkled, “In Anna,” he mimicked. Putting his hand to his chest he said, “Apsu”.
He ran his small fingers along the smooth, silvery edge of my ship’s metallic outer skin. “Anzu,” he said.
Later, I learned “Anzu” meant firebird who brings thunder.
• Inanna — goddess a.k.a. The Queen of Heaven.
• Apsu — god of sweet waters. Humankind was reportedly created from the clay formed by Apsu.
• Anu—a god “he who contains the entire universe”.