9 comments

Science Fiction

Unfortunately, I was standing near the window of the lunar dome when the single-occupancy shuttle landed—and I only say that in retrospect. Had I realized Marcus was aboard that shuttle, I might have failed to extend the temporary atmosphere that allowed him to reach the dome. We all look roughly the same in our regulation suits, and I was, to be completely honest, more interested in the state of the shuttle than the arrival of another colonist.

His shuttle, unlike mine, hadn’t disintegrated after landing. While he slipped into the airlock, I listened to the hiss of the depressurizing mechanisms and studied the shuttle. Just before the airlock opened, I punched a series of buttons in the nearest control panel, and a lift-equipped lunar bot rumbled out to stow the shuttle inside the hangar adjoining the dome.

“Good boy, Rover,” I said, allowing myself a smile.

“Haven’t stopped naming your bots, I see.” Marcus spoke from behind me, slightly breathless. “And Rover? Not too original.”

“True,” I replied, keeping my words clipped and precise, “but I’ve been on solitary assignment here for almost a year, and there are only so many pieces of equipment in the dome.”

Marcus held out his still-gloved hands. “If you can believe it, it’s a pleasure to see you.”

I shook my head. “Our relationship would alter for the better if we ceased to communicate.”

Before he could reply, I drifted down the hall into the center of the dome, towards computer control. I’d dropped the artificial gravity just below normal, and I imagined Marcus gliding awkwardly along behind me.

“I did hope,” he said, “that we might at least include common courtesy in our relationship. If I understood the cryptic instructions from ground control, we’re going to be the sole occupants of this dome for quite some time.”

“No, I’ve been the sole occupant of this dome for quite some time,” I corrected, settling into my usual chair and running a cursory diagnostic on the computer. “From what I understand, I wasn’t expected to survive my first day here.”

He seated himself carefully. “That’s what the planners told me. They said you had all failed your assignments, and the colony was empty.” I just heard his next words over the hum of the computer. “I hoped their information was incorrect.”

I sighed. “They weren’t all lies. When I arrived here, the colony was in fact empty.”

“Empty?” he repeated. “ Richard Crayfe, and Georgia Marr, and Tom O’Sheen—gone?”

I tried to ignore the sound of his voice breaking. “Don’t ask for sympathy. I was able to retrieve some of their records, but they’re definitely deceased.”

He took a deep breath. “How? If they failed their assignments, they should have returned to Earth.”

I turned my chair to face his. “Do you really think, after all this time, the planners would allow that? You, of all people, should know the risk involved in defying them.”

“So you blame me for your lonely year?” He shook his head. “I didn’t ask you to join me.”

“Does it matter that I didn’t join you?” I scanned the results of the diagnostic, highlighting code to edit. “My simple association with you earned me a showdown with this killer computer.”

He chuckled. “That was their mistake, wasn’t it? It’s clearly not a killer computer now.”

I didn’t laugh along with him. “Obviously, no. O’Sheen left some genuine paper records under the sigma plating panel. Just his version of Theseus and the Labyrinth, but that gave me an idea. I reprogrammed the beast into an impossible maze of code.”

He held up his hands. “Don’t try to explain the technical gibberish to me.”

“I wasn’t about to,” I said, “but, just for that, you get the short version.” Pointing to the highlighted lines of code in the diagnostic, I added, “For a computer, this code is the equivalent of a logical contradiction. It’s so busy trying to solve the contradiction that the programming loops into itself, keeping the dome running. As long as I don’t antagonize it by trying to retrieve classified information, it lets me get on my with my life.”

“Classified information?” he repeated. “Such as?”

“Such as the colonists’ logs,” I said. “My first day here, I retrieved partial extracts while the computer alternately tried to freeze and melt me.”

“Why risk your life for the logs?” he asked, staring at the lines of computer code.

“To find out what happened to them,” I said, editing the code with brief touches to the screen. “They were your colleagues. Wouldn’t you take the same risk?”

Out of habit, I held my breath as the computer accepted my changes to the Labyrinth. I knew Marcus was watching me, but I didn’t look up.

“Can I see Tom’s records?” he asked. “It’s been a long time.”

I considered refusing, but his request was almost a plea. Despite my better judgement, I assumed command tone. “Labyrinth, release the key.”

A narrow panel in the console retracted, revealing a neat sheaf of creased paper. I slipped on gloves before handing it to Marcus, who still wore his regulation suit. Leaving the panel open, I turned to run a final diagnostic on the edited computer code.

I’d almost forgotten he was sitting there until he spoke. “Tom had the neatest handwriting,” he said, “except for what he called his ‘story hand.’ All full of flourishes, like something out of an old manuscript.” He laughed. “Georgia always tried to copy him, but she never could.”

“And this is his ‘story hand’?” I asked, squinting at the pages. “I was glad he gave Ariadne a real part, but the handwriting’s not bad.”

“I’m glad it could be of use to somebody,” he said, handing the papers to me. “I never could read it that easily.”

I slid the papers back behind the panel. “Finally something you had to work for?”

He slipped off his gloves and laced his fingers together. “Tom’s handwriting was the least of my challenges, Dr. Dallen. Don’t try to pretend you don’t know that.” I started to respond, but he shook his head. “I think we’ve had enough. There’s another challenge facing both of us, and cooperation is the key to success.”

I checked that the diagnostic showed clear. “The only challenge I foresee is storing up enough patience to strap you in your shuttle.”

Marcus tried to laugh. “Don’t you want to leave? It won’t take much to convert the shuttle to double-occupancy. I’m sure—”

“I’m sure the planners will send us back, with a double shuttle that explodes en route,” I said. “If I had to guess, they only left yours intact because they knew you’d be a particularly easy target for the unmodified Labyrinth.”

“Our challenge still stands,” he insisted. “If the planners don’t know you’ve tamed the computer, we can establish a base of operations in the dome. Every colonist they send will already be predisposed to join our cause.”

“Our cause?” I laughed. “You want to revive the cause that killed Crayfe, and Georgia, and Tom? The cause that almost killed me? Not while I run this dome.”

“It’s the perfect scenario,” he insisted. “The planners will be supplying their own downfall.”

“Too perfect,” I objected. “They would uncover your plots eventually. They always do, remember? Why else would you be here now?”

He leaned forward in his chair. His voice deepened slightly, and I realized I couldn’t look away. “For the cause, Dr. Dallen,” he said. “For the cause, every sacrifice is meaningful.”

I struck out with my fists, almost before I realized it. I didn’t hit Marcus, but his chair slipped backwards.

“Was Crayfe’s death meaningful?” I asked, forcing out the words. “Or Georgia’s? Or Tom’s? What about my mother’s sacrifice?”

“Your mother,” Marcus said slowly, “had nothing to do with the cause. You’re famous for seeing things impartially, aren’t you? If you examine the facts—”

I nodded. “Of course. My mother meant nothing to you. We won’t discuss her.”

He drew in his breath like a cadet who’d been winded during combat training. “Again,” he finally said, “your mother had nothing to do with it. But you won’t join the cause, will you?” He maneuvered his chair closer to the control panel, tapping the edge with his fingers.

“I won’t stay here and watch my dome overflow with fanatics, if that’s what you envision,” I said, pushing back from the control panel and out of my chair. “I’d rather face an Earth full of planners, so that’s where I’ll go.”

I heard him stop tapping. “No,” he said. “I don’t think you will.”

At first, I thought the thermal regulators in the dome had malfunctioned, but the temperature display read stable—and I was still shivering.

Behind me, Marcus assumed command tone. “Labyrinth, voice recognition Marcus Dallen, code six William epsilon five. Following ten-minute countdown, reactivate Minotaur.”

I turned. “Dad, please!” My voice broke, and I couldn’t steady it. “Please don’t.”

My father might have smiled at me. “I’m sorry, Sarai. The planners scanned the dome remotely and realized that you survived. If I hadn’t agreed to eliminate you—”

“They’d eliminate you too,” I whispered.

His shoulders lifted slightly. “My supply of charm finally ran out. They weren’t willing to give me any other terms.”

“Nine minutes until Minotaur reactivation,” the computer announced. “Dome destabilization pending.”

I knew I should begin rewriting the Minotaur code. My previous battles with the computer meant that I could theoretically solve another crisis, but I didn’t move. After a moment or two, I felt his hand on my shoulder. For whatever reason, I didn’t shrug it away.

“Sarai,” he said softly. “Believe it or not, I think we’re working for the same objective—and I’m not thinking of my cause, or even your code.”

“What do you know about my objectives?” I asked. “Mine made sense, and yours never did.”

“That’s exactly my point,” he said, turning to face me. “Your lines of logical code and my endless appeals for the cause are very different things. Could you think beyond them, just for a moment?”

“Eight minutes,” the computer informed us. “Evacuation of non-targets is advised.”

I almost laughed. “I don’t have many moments left. Do you think the computer will freeze my cells, or incinerate them? Maybe both, if I’m unlucky.”

“Sarai, please.” Both his hands were on my shoulders now, trembling like his voice.

“Now who’s pleading?” I was too close not to see the tears on his cheeks, but I couldn’t help the retort. “Why didn’t you ask me before activating the Minotaur, Dad?”

He didn’t answer, but the computer noted the seven-minute mark.

“Okay, I’ll answer,” I said, shaking my shoulders free. “We’re both incredibly stubborn people, so you thought a life-or-death situation would force us to have this conversation.”

His smile almost seemed subdued. “It was the perfect scenario.” He scrubbed away his tears, and I noticed just how worn his face was.

“You’re starting to look like Grandad,” I blurted. “You really are.”

He laughed. “There’s the honesty I was looking for.”

“Six minutes,” the computed droned. “Six minutes.”

“Here’s a question,” he said. “Do you really enjoy all our back-and-forth?”

“Are you implying that I have an emotional core hidden somewhere?” I asked, and he laughed harder. “But, as long as we’re being honest, no.”

“Well,” he said, “in that case, would you consider—”

I held up my hand. “This doesn’t mean I’m ready to hand you a clean slate. I expect answers about my mother, and about this stunt the planners convinced you to pull—not to mention an explanation on behalf of Crayfe, and Georgia, and Tom O’Sheen.”

“Five minutes to destabilization,” the computer insisted.

I glanced at the console. “Pending that I can recode the Minotaur in five minutes.”

For the first time, he looked worried. “I was counting on that,” he admitted. “And on convincing the remote scanners that I’ve eliminated you.”

I bent over the console, mentally sorting the flashing code chains. “My last record was four fifty-five. If I can beat that, reconfiguring any remote scanning indicators will be easy.” After only half a minute, I fed the new code chains into the Labyrinth.

“Recoding denied,” the computer announced. “Destabilization pending.”

I tried not to slam my fist into the console. “It was clearly too simple,” I admitted. “They must have scanned all my stored code. None of the reconfigured chains will work.”

Then I heard him laugh, the laugh that meant a crazy idea was about to come spilling out.

“Is this a viable idea?” I asked. “Not all of yours were.”

He shook his head. “It’s not mine—it’s from Tom’s story. Ariadne followed Theseus into the Labyrinth, and she distracted the Minotaur. The beast couldn’t decide which target to attack, so Theseus dispatched it from behind.”

I blinked. “How exactly does that help us? We have just under four minutes.”

“You have to give the Minotaur another contradiction,” he said. “If you force it to activate, force it to simultaneously raise and lower the temperature in the dome, it won’t know which command to execute.”

“While I hate to admit it,” I said, queuing up a string of new code, “you may be right. If it’s confused enough, I could reroute it into—”

“Three minutes,” the computer interrupted. “Destabilization pending.”

I took a deep breath and looked at my father. “Should I do it? There’s no guarantee.”

He nodded. “Sarai, even if it fails, I’ll consider this mission a success.”

I allowed myself a smile and assumed command tone. “Labyrinth, voice recognition Sarai Dallen, code six William epsilon four. Combine Minotaur destruct codes seven beta and eleven delta. Override countdown and activate.”

Lights flashed, and the computer whirred. “Ten-second countdown mandated. Destruct codes combined. Dome destabilization beginning in ten, nine—”

“And just to be sure,” I whispered, “we’re rerouting the Minotaur into the hangar.”

He had been counting along with the computer, but he stopped and stared at me. “We’re what?”

Before I could answer, the computer spoke. “Program rerouted. Hangar overloading.”

The walls of the dome didn’t admit sound waves, but we watched as the hangar’s monitor displayed an internal explosion. Fragments of the shuttle skittered across the floor, and Rover rolled in all directions, extinguishing fires.

“Minotaur activated,” the computed announced, but I hardly heard.

“Why in all of blazing space did the shuttle explode?” I asked, giving him a long stare.

He buried his face in his hands. “I think I must have left some circuits running.”

I took a shaky breath. “And any sudden temperature change would overload the decommissioned machinery, especially if the Minotaur tried to heat the hangar first.”

“I’m glad neither of us decided to retreat to the hangar,” he said, “but our problems aren’t over.”

“Really?” I noted—impartially—that this remark wasn’t a retort. “And the Minotaur wasn’t enough?”

“We’re going to have to communicate with some courtesy if you want to repurpose the shuttle,” he said. “It’s a task designed for two, so I’m afraid you won’t get the relationship alteration that you wanted.”

“I’ll get stories to rival Tom O’Sheen’s instead,” I reminded him. “You still owe me several explanations.”

He nodded. “Now that the Minotaur has run to ground, we should have plenty of time.”

“Not if the planners realize the stunt we pulled,” I pointed out. Leaning over the console, I initiated three stealth-scan programs simultaneously. “Then they’ll send out the reprogrammers in style.”

He chuckled. “You could outsmart the whole fleet without trying.”

My laugh, the kind that meant I was in fact amused, escaped before I could catch it. “Between Dr. Sarai Dallen and her impossible father, they wouldn’t stand a chance.”

January 04, 2021 21:45

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

9 comments

Elle Clark
08:34 Jan 11, 2021

What an interesting story! I really like the connection with mythology and how they draw on that so explicitly whilst still being very much in the future. The relationship between Sarai and her father was a little confusing for me but I really liked how stark their viewpoints were - logic and passion. I was also really intrigued about the wider world. Who the planners were and what their objectives were. A really engaging story; thanks for sharing!

Reply

18:30 Jan 11, 2021

Thanks! Glad you liked it. I might write a companion story to explain some of the wider world

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Mark De Four
03:35 Jan 15, 2021

I felt like I was watching two people communicate on a space station. I particularly liked the way that you used the computer as an aid to the narration. It not only provided atmospherics, it became part of the action and dialog. I was a little confused about the shuttle. I thought that Sarai's had disintegrated when she had arrived and that her fathers blew up in the hanger towards the end, but then there was some mention about repurposing a shuttle to seat two.

Reply

17:03 Jan 15, 2021

Thanks for the feedback! Somehow, I didn't catch the inconsistency with the shuttle. Perhaps Sarai and her father will rebuild the exploded one with added equipment from the lunar base, or build a shuttle from scratch

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Philip Clayberg
01:17 Jan 05, 2021

I think this is story is even better than the first one. Thank you for writing it. Computers can be very literal-minded. You almost have to think like a computer just to outwit one. I'm wondering what will happen next. Father and daughter on the Moon, hopefully working as a team. What will be sent to the Moon next? Another shuttle with one occupant ... or a weapon (like a missile or rocket) to destroy Sarai and her father as well as the base itself? Maybe the next shuttle arrives just minutes before the weapon will hit the base? Or ...

Reply

03:15 Jan 05, 2021

Thanks for the feedback! I appreciate your noting possible problems. I've tidied them up, but in answer to the first query--Dr. Dallen doesn't have the greatest relationship with her father, and she tries to be impersonal by using just his first name. When she realizes that he's turned the Minotaur against her, "Dad" slips out. I also wanted to keep their relationship ambiguous (i.e. is Marcus a best friend who's betrayed her, possibly even a significant other or a sibling?) until a key moment in the story. Do you think this choice is too co...

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Maya W.
22:11 Jan 04, 2021

Hey Emilie! I really liked this one. I love Sarai and her father's characters, and I enjoyed their bickering, It felt natural. My only complaint is that I think you got a little bit lost in the dialogue. More descriptions of Sarai's thought process could really elevate it a little bit more. But all in all, I really really liked this one! Keep up the good work! I just published a new story today, would you mind giving it a read?

Reply

03:54 Jan 05, 2021

Thanks for the feedback, Maya! Fair point about the dialogue--I have too much fun writing it sometimes. I probably should have left a comment specifying that this is a sequel to my "Sunset Moon," in which Dr. Dallen faces the 'killer computer' for the first time. By the time frame of "Blood Moon," she's been alone for a year, and I was hoping the dialogue would demonstrate the cynicism she's accumulated. Sure, I'll head on over to your new story!

Reply

Maya W.
03:56 Jan 05, 2021

Thanks! Ah, that makes sense.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply