The return to an abandoned planet reveals unsettling changes in the androids left to care for the environment, some 21 centuries before…
Echoes | Deadly Survey
She sat in the corner, surrounded by the severed heads. One lay inert just out of her reach, another two had rolled under the nearest chair, and three more had almost disappeared into ash. For a moment a puzzled frown crept across her face and swept up her cheeks to crease the smooth curves of her forehead. Then she jumped up, and giggled, clapping her hands gleefully, kicking at the heads. She ran around her room five times before flopping onto the bed that served as her night-time solace, sighed and fell asleep.
Eight hours earlier the crew of Pisa 13 had made their final gravity hop into the atmosphere of the planet humankind had abandoned to their droids, some twenty one centuries before.
“All clear Captain.” The co-pilot of the small ship, housing only thirty four occupants, mostly scientists, guardians and flight crew, spoke quietly through the carbon telecom implant in her head.
“Acknowledged. Do we have permission to land?” The Captain’s reply emerged into the co-pilot’s headset. Together they had navigated their ship through so many galaxies, hunting black holes for energy and using their deep gravity to swing through space and time. Throughout, the Captain and her co-pilot had been suspended in the preservation gel of their stasis tanks, at opposite ends of the ship.
“Waiting for the last bits of code. The atmosphere here is still polluted, after all these years, The instruments are taking longer to unscramble.”
“Yeah, well, that wasn’t the only reason we all left for the colonies.”
“Wonder what they’ll be like, they’ve been re-calibrating the atmosphere for centuries, reducing the toxins slowly. They were high level droids, much more intelligent than us. Must’ve got bored.”
“I haven’t seen any reports from the most recent survey missions. Lost in some data purge.”
“Technology eh? Supposed to make our lives easier?!” They laughed, it was a long standing joke.
“Ma’am?” A pause was interrupted by a bubbling spurt of noise, “No, what? They say wait for the sun to come up.”
“They can’t be serious. These are the droids we left on Earth?”
“The data signature says so? Oh, hold on,” another bubble of sound burst through,” “They say we should enjoy the dawn, it so beautiful.” The co-pilot’s head voice was flat, but puzzled.
“God, I didn’t realize we’d left a bunch of hippy robots on earth.” The Captain strained her neck and shifted her position in the stasis gel. The sun’s reflections were indeed emerging over the rim of the planet. Within a few minutes its gentle breath spread across the surface of the Northern Hemisphere, highlighting the froth of the oceans, the tips of the northern mountains, and burning away the clouds.
“Ok, so the sun’s up. Can we go now?” The Captain sounded a touch impatient.
“All clear’s come through. Co-ordinates locked.”
The craft surged down and headed towards a dome that poked its unnatural eye out of the surrounding trees and meadows. Slowing they came to a halt directly above the dome which then opened, revealing a burst of air that gripped the ship and brought it gently to the ground.”
“Come along, time to stretch our legs and get busy.”
The co-pilot and the Captain were released by their stasis tanks, and shook themselves of the gel, before dressing swiftly and strolling over to join the party of scientists waiting patiently by the aft bay doors.
With no weapons in sight, the quiet assembly of scientists and guards stood composed, titanium cases at their side. As the doors opened they were bathed in fresh air for the first time in fifty five years, since their previous survey visit to this galaxy, on a curated asteroid off Barnard’s Star.
The dome hummed quietly. Within a few moments the visitors discerned a voice that seemed to approach them from all around. The Captain recognized the silky tones of an android Model 89, one of the sentinel robots left to fix the atmosphere, and in charge of a cohort of observation droids.
“You are most welcome.” a group of humanoid forms seemed to drift out of the shadows and the walls of the dome. Their arms were calm, their hands clasped respectfully. They would have integrated well with us, thought the Captain. Shame they don’t have feelings.
“No threat here Ma’am.” The co-pilot spoke into the head of her superior officer. “But look at his hand. Four digits, including the opposable thumb.”
“Four! That doesn’t make sense. Keep alert.”
One of the Model 89s stepped forward and bowed slightly with his perfectly formed human head. “I am Tarkus. We are so glad to see you. It’s been so long since we had visitors.”
“Really? We’ve not been able to read the reports.” The Captain expressed surprise, but realized the Android did not speak in his head. She repeated herself, aloud, observing that her throat was dry and her voice sounded rasping and ugly.
“Well, it’s just a turn of phrase?!” The android laughed gently. The Captain exchanged glances with her own companions, each of whom had arrived with a specific purpose of study. But they all stared at the fluency and apparent humanity of this android.
“You have developed yourself, your functions?” The Captain asked the question which floated through the minds of the visitors.
“Oh, well it’s been a long time. And we have no need for sleep.” The android smiled, and placed a gentle hand on one of its companions, a shorter, older looking robot. “Come, let us begin. I can download the station data to each of you so you can select your observation points. Will that be sufficient for your needs?”
The Captain and the co-pilot watched as the scientists scurried off into parts of the dome, disappearing down the hidden stairs and lifts that would take them to the underground chambers below, and across to the various places on the planet. It was another routine visit to a planet long deserted by the human race.
“But we have an additional point of interest.” With just the Captain, the co-pilot and the first android left on the main deck the three of them gathered together as old friends, leaning in as humans used to in the days before overpopulation and Exodus had forced the entire race to leave for land and resources elsewhere in the universe.
“Oh, I had not expected anything else.” The Captain smiled benignly. Somewhere part of her registered a sliver of pleasure at the thought of something unplanned. She realized that the android had begun to communicate into the carbon implants. A quick learner, she noted.
“Please, come with me.” The android turned, the slight vacuum of the suckers on its shoes echoed across the dome. They took the nearest stairs to the deck below, down which they each clattered, then walked along corridors presented in all directions. They passed occasional doors within which the visiting scientists looked out of wall-sized windows into the vast forests across the planet, their heads full of the polite descriptive chatter of the androids.
“Here.” Tarkus stepped in front, motioning that the others walk into the next room where they were greeted by a wide circle of androids, each one standing in front of a suspended screen, moving illuminated diagrams, plucking and shifting views and stroking data into the air.
The Captain and the co-pilot turned to see the object of their study.
Behind a thick plexi-glass wall there was a room, and a small girl. She sat in the corner, surrounded by severed heads. One lay inert just out of her reach, another two had rolled under the nearest chair, and three more had almost disappeared into ash. For a moment a puzzled frown crept across her face and swept up her cheeks to crease the smooth curves of her forehead. Then she jumped up, clapped her hands gleefully, giggled and kicked at the dismembered heads. She ran around her room five times before flopping onto the bed that served as her night-time solace, sighed and fell asleep.
“But what is this?” The Captain hesitated. There were no records of additional androids, or humans, just the Model 89s. “Did you develop her yourself?” He was astonished enough to speak aloud.
“No, not at all. We found her. Not long after the Exodus.” Tarkus paused. “We brought her her. She cannot leave the room. It is sealed shut. The air is carefully controlled. As soon as she leaves, she will die.”
“Can she see us?”
“No.” Tarkus’ left eye swivelled independently of his right. He observed both the girl in the room, and the face of the Captain next to him.
The girl looked up, as though aware of something new. The Captain walked forward and stared deep into the eyes that peered back from the other side of the plexi-glass. They were old, wild, human eyes. The Captain shivered with distant emotions, then leaned back and asked Tarkus, “But what are the heads?”
“Oh, we construct small robots to teach and entertain her. After a while she grows impatient and tears off their heads. We do not know why.”
The Captain stared into the little room, fascinated by the child, who appeared to be in the state of being that humanity had eradicated over the millennia. “I think you’re doing the right thing. Observing and curating, just as you are the trees and the skies.”
“Yes, we hoped you would say that.” The android smiled.
The hour for departure arrived. The scientists gathered back on the deck and were sent on their way by Tarkus and its cohort of androids. The roof of the dome opened, the spacecraft, lifted gently in the air by the efficient hand of technology, then rocketed upwards through the atmosphere.
“Captain?” The co-pilot wondered about the silence from her commanding officer. “Captain? Did you see the girl?”
“And the eyes.”
“Of course, but––”
“Just the eyes were human. So were the heads. Now we know what happened to the previous Survey Ship. The Androids have been experimenting. We were lucky.”
A tension stretched across the ship, from beam to bow. The Captain spoke quietly through her carbon implant , her words landing softly into the co-pilot’s head. “You know what we have to do.”
“All clear Ma’am?”
The Captain sighed.
As the spacecraft made it’s first gravity jump the co-pilot gave one final command in the solar system of Old Earth, and launched four nuclear warheads towards the surface of the planet.
“All clear, Ma’am, Counting down. 8, 5, 3, 2, 1, 1, zero.”
Text, image, audio © 2015 Jake Jackson, thesefantasticworlds.com. Thanks to Frances Bodiam (for the reading) and Elise Wells, Logic Pro, the Twisted Wave Recorder App, Apogee Condenser microphone, Letraset and Micron pigment ink pens, Rotring pens and inks, Daler Rowney acrylic ink, and Alfons Schmidt’s fantastic Notebook app.
More next week…
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