by Vaughan Stanger
Shrouded in darkness, I wait for the Egg to release me. After what seems like an eternity, a coin of creamy light appears before my eyes. A familiar voice whispers in my ear, urging me onwards. I focus on the disk; try to grasp it with my mind. It flows towards me, expanding all the while, until I am enveloped in a panorama of black, white and grey.
At first the wrap-around image fails to keep pace with my movements, but within seconds the drugs fed to me by the Egg begin to mitigate the effects of irreducible distance. Prediction and perception bind together in a chemical embrace, concealing the delay between cause and effect. Time-lagged ‘there’ transforms into virtual ‘here’ as unreal time takes hold.
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I am telepresent on the surface of the Moon, rolling across the landscape on wheels of aluminium. Though my body languishes in an Earth-side isolation chamber, cobwebbed with sensors, my viewpoint is that of a geological survey robot roving the maria. The Terabit network link restrains my freedom like an electronic leash. It is an ever-present reminder that the work I perform is intended as a punishment.
As I prospect for rare minerals in the lunar soil, the passing seconds rush me inexorably towards snatch-back.
The Egg retrieves me.
Reverse lag, where my actions seem to precede my thoughts, confuses me for a few seconds, but the sensation ebbs away as a further dose of drugs reintegrates my mind into Egg-time, removing the last traces of transference. I drink the sweet fluid dispensed by the Egg, regaining the energy expended during my session of telepresence. Here I will remain until my next leap across the void, some twenty hours from now.
As is usual during the rest period, my thoughts dwell on my trial and the verdict that followed. My guilt was undeniable, my crime unforgivable. The denial-of-service attack on MedNet — that technological wonder that had so singularly failed my wife — resulted in the deaths of seven children. Given the loss of so many lives, it was a surprise that I did not lose mine. Instead, the electronic judiciary sentenced me to fifty years of ‘hard labour’ — a punishment that at first evoked a ludicrous image of sledgehammers, shackles and chains. Fortunately for me, the concept had been modernised to exploit the capabilities of twenty-first century technology.
To some, a lifetime spent working alone on the surface of the Moon might seem an intolerable punishment; but I can think of nowhere better to pay my debt to society than in such splendid isolation.
I am moon-roving again, rolling without haste towards my next survey area. My wide-angle vision allows me to skirt the boulders and craters that pockmark this barren sea of soil. From time to time an unusual rock catches my attention, so I halt nearby and use my high-resolution stereo imager to capture its geomorphology in more detail. Then I resume my contemplation of the passing landscape.
The silence is broken by the Whisperer. It orders me to conduct the survey according to the standard pattern, halting every kilometre to dig a hole in the regolith, insert a probe and extract the data. I must repeat this procedure until snatch-back occurs. The work is tedious but I have no cause to complain, for I am lucky indeed that my punishment allows me to fulfil a childhood dream. Perhaps that is why my daily work period is restricted to a mere four hours, a duration that otherwise seems perversely short.
The Whisperer issues a final command: ‘Do not resist snatch-back.’
The warning is unnecessary. I have no reason to resist.
Two hours later the survey is over, the results unknown to me. Further instructions from the Whisperer have directed me to a new grid-reference, some twenty kilometres from my most recent zone of operations. I roll across the gently undulating plain, a metal bug pressing grooved tracks into the virgin soil. The mind-lulling quality of the journey induces a sense of detachment and, as a consequence, a loss of transference occurs. I become aware that the pitted landscape is really an image projected onto the curved wall of the Egg. Distracted by the treacly quality of the time lag, I only just avoid tipping the robot into a small crater that lies across my path.
The Egg pumps more drugs into my body, to compensate for my sluggish response. Transference is re-established, predictive control finessing causality once more.
My destination presents a scene that surprises and enthrals in equal measure. With tears trickling down my distant face, I circle the sunlit descent stage of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module. The foil-covered spacecraft squats on its spindly legs, a mute witness to history. It is an intensely evocative sight, this spent remnant left behind when Armstrong and Aldrin were hurled back into the sky to rendezvous with their less favoured colleague.
The Whisperer commands me to retire to a position two hundred metres south of the spacecraft. I obey its instructions with reluctance, as I would prefer to contemplate this monument to human endeavour from close range. Not for the first time, I find myself wishing that I had been born fifty years earlier.
An alarm signal from my motion detectors drags me from my reverie. Less than a hundred metres away, four robots are heading in a ragged single file towards the landing site. As the machines draw closer, I notice that their hulls are adorned with Sega logos. No wonder their movements are so erratic. These robots are being tele-operated by tourists. They will have paid thousands of dollars and waited several years to enjoy this opportunity to inspect the relics of the Apollo era.
The presence, however remote, of fellow human beings lifts my spirits. I roll towards the visitors, but the Whisperer reasserts its authority. Snatch-back intervenes with infuriating haste, a thousand seconds earlier than scheduled.
I wake an hour before the start of my next work period, to find that a jarring vibration has replaced the gentle hum that normally suffuses the Egg. When I operate the food dispenser, the fluid that emerges tastes rancid. Repeated requests for help bring no response from the Whisperer. Miserable in my isolation, I thrash about my cell like a lungfish on a mud flat.
Two hours creep by, then a third, yet still I receive no summons. Furious that half of my scheduled work period has elapsed already, I attempt to operate the telepresence link unaided. With my faced bathed in the familiar creamy light and dismissing all thoughts of punishment, I reach for the Moon.
Transference occurs less quickly than usual, but eventually the drugs manage to couple my mind to the distant robot. This is the first time that I have reached my lunar sanctuary without the stimulus of the Whisperer. The achievement makes me feel giddy with elation.
At first I rove around Tranquillity Base, inspecting the relics, revelling in my freedom. But as the hours crawl by, a feeling of disquiet begins to seep into my mind. Much as I loathe the Whisperer, it is my sole contact with the human race. Its absence is mystifying.
Comforted by the thought that I can return to the Moon whenever I wish, I foster a sense of detachment. Snatch-back kicks in almost immediately.
Back in the Egg, the vibration has reached a juddering crescendo that suggests the entire structure is about to disintegrate. As I bang my hands against the curved walls, the plastic waste disposal unit ruptures, causing water and excrement to gush into the chamber. My frantic cries for help bring no response from machine or human being. I am trapped in my cell, unable to escape from the rising tide of sewage.
In desperation, I try the link again; but the Egg’s drug dispensing system has gone off-line, so the transference fails to gel. I rebound back to Earth, to find the chamber flooded and faeces bobbing against my lips. Adrenalin takes over, propelling me back to the Moon, but my presence there is as fleeting as before. I oscillate back and forth between the failing life support of the Egg and the life-denying Sea of Tranquillity. One or the other will surely be my grave…
Strange metallic insects swarm around the spindly legs of the golden spider, struggling to release it from the clutches of rock and soil….
The dreamscape ebbs away, dissolving into the familiar vista of the Apollo 11 landing site. With a shiver that seems bodiless, I realise that I am on the Moon again, attached to my familiar host. But this time the link seems to be dead. There is no way back to the Egg.
Bewildered by my situation, I try to operate the robot. Within seconds, I realise that I have greater control than ever before. If I decide to open a manipulator claw, open it does, immediately and intuitively. There is no delay, no time lag, not even the residual micro-drag that remained after drug-induced temporal compensation. This is not telepresence; this is something far more real, far more ‘here’ than the Whisperer ever permitted.
My recollection of the Whisperer’s regime elicits a possible explanation, though at first I dismiss the idea as ridiculous. But after some further experiments, I realise that the conclusion is inescapable. And with hindsight, it was implicit all along in the Whisperer’s monotonous warnings about resisting snatch-back.
Despite the brevity of my work periods, it seems that the telepresence process must have imprinted my mentality upon my host’s electronic brain. Ordinarily, the effects would have been unnoticeable, just “me” overlaid upon myself. But when the crisis in the Egg became terminal, when there was nowhere else for me to go…
Stunned by the revelation, I direct my high-resolution imager towards the Earth. Shining in the darkness like a jewel, my home seems far removed in both space and time. I am not fooled though, for sooner or later contact will resume — and with it my punishment. But until then, I will enjoy my freedom.
According to my host’s database, the shallow crater that lies before me lacks an official designation. Situated some five kilometres to the west of the Apollo 11 landing site and possessing a diameter of only three hundred metres, it was judged too insignificant to immortalise even the most obscure of eighteenth century scientists. I consider donating it my former name, but as I trundle over the rim I realise that such a gesture would be premature.
Near the centre of the depression, one of the Sega tele-tourist robots lies on its side, amid a field of boulders. Twenty metres to my right, the other three members of the tour party sit clustered together on the crater rim, as if forming a guard of honour for their stricken comrade. The absence of running lights suggests that all four robots are dead, their one-time operators long since departed.
Intrigued by the tableau, I inspect the interior of the crater more closely. It seems unlikely that such gentle gradients could have been the sole cause of the accident. More likely, whatever happened here is linked to my own situation in some way.
As I turn to leave, my peripheral vision detects signs of movement in the crater. Closer observation reveals that the stricken robot’s dish antenna has begun rotating.
I roll down the slope and halt next to the robot. After a wary inspection, I attempt to wrestle the machine back onto its wheels using my twin manipulators. Several bouts of grappling achieve nothing. Finally, having convinced myself that brute force is the only option, I ram the robot at the maximum speed I can attain. Rebounding off a boulder, the machine flips back onto its wheels, but the landing causes two of its six suspension units to collapse, one on each side of the vehicle.
The Sega robot pursues an erratic course around the crater, scattering plumes of dust into the sable sky. Eventually the machine brakes to a halt in front of me, but when I attempt to inspect its damaged suspension units more closely, it backs away, as if suspicious of my intentions. Lacking a communications link, I can do nothing to allay its concerns.
With no particular plan in mind, I retrace my path over the crater rim, expecting the robot to follow, but I soon discover that it is unable to climb even this modest slope. I return to the damaged machine and, with much spinning of wheels, manage to push it up the incline. Only when the terrain levels out does the robot manage to make headway on its own.
The robot halts in front of its former comrades, but its presence fails to stir them into life. Separated by silence, we roll slowly back to the Apollo 11 landing site, a location that is imbued with a comforting familiarity, for me at least.
By the time we reach our destination, the problem of communication has become uppermost in my mind. Given the limitations of our hosts, the most practical solution is to write messages with our manipulators. Unable to think of anything more profound, I scrawl ‘My name is Michael’ in the loose soil. The robot tilts its stereo imager downwards to inspect the spidery characters, but does not respond further.
Could it be that the robot’s single manipulator was damaged in the accident? Thinking back, I realise that at no time since our encounter in the crater has the device moved even fractionally.
Desperate to achieve some form of communication, however basic, I scrawl ‘Can you operate your lights?’ Almost at once, the robot responds with a single flash of its spotlights.
Now at last I can ask the question that has been at the back of my mind since I rescued the robot.
‘Are you human?’ elicits a single flash from the robot. Despite the brevity of the reply, it is a moment of life-affirming intensity.
Frustration with my comrade’s limited answers soon forces me to consider methods for augmenting their semantic depth. The result is an alphabet scraped on the ground. A painstaking session of gestures and flashes reveals that my companion is a woman named Teri. Long dormant emotions stir, but as I gaze upon her gleaming hull I find myself wondering whether gender has any real meaning in our present circumstances. For now, the mere act of communication is an immense challenge to both of us. Several times a cascade of double light flashes brings our conversation to a premature end.
After hours of mutual frustration, Teri rolls closer to me than ever before and tilts her stereo imager downwards to inspect my left-mounted manipulator. A single light flashes. Then, after a few seconds, she repeats the signal, and continues to do so over and over again.
I scold myself for taking so long to realise the obvious: that we must share our resources. Fortunately, electromechanical interfaces are standard on all lunar robots, so the proposed surgery, although awkward to perform single-handed, is feasible.
An hour later, Teri and I are each equipped with a single working manipulator. Now, finally, we can converse as equals.
Teri explains that she had been working as a lunar tour guide, escorting groups of tele-tourists on Sega’s Apollo Experience excursion. She had just begun a demonstration descent into the crater when her telecommunications link faltered. Thereafter, her experiences resembled mine, but her ultimate fate was even worse. During one of the glitches her host machine collided with a boulder, rendering it immobile. She knows nothing of the fate of the tourists, but it seems obvious to me that novice teleoperators would have remained on the Earth side of the link.
Eager to reinforce our bond, I write ‘Only experienced teleoperators could have transferred.’ Too late, I realise that I have revealed more than I intended, for other than tourists and their guides only convicted criminals are permitted to operate lunar robots. I watch with mounting anxiety as Teri scratches each character of her reply.
‘Then you must be a criminal!’
I delay answering for several seconds, but in the end I flash a single light.
My companion backs away from me, her contempt all too obvious. Terrified by the prospect of renewed isolation, I chase after her, but she recoils each time I try to make contact. Eventually I abandon the pursuit. For several minutes neither of us moves; then, finally, she rolls over to me and scrawls ‘Sorry – we must face this together’ in the lunar soil.
Sociable once more, we engage in a tentative handshake. As I grasp her manipulator, I become aware of the increased vibration level in my chassis. My wheels spin, churning up the regolith. The sensation is almost sexual in its intensity.
Almost, but not quite.
The terse messages that Teri and I scratch in the soil help to remind us that we are human, but remind us too of the severity of our predicament.
Three Earth days have passed, yet still the link remains out of action. For now, it seems we must accept our situation and formulate a strategy for survival. Our situation is far from hopeless, as our host machines were designed to operate autonomously for months at a time. The solar cells that clad our backs should supply us with motive power indefinitely, provided we conserve our energy during the protracted lunar nights. Already my memories of a life sustained by air, food and water have begun to seem irrelevant. The acquisition of sustenance is so much simpler now.
Although long-term survival is a distinct possibility, in the physical sense at least, the maintenance of our mental and emotional well-being seems much less likely. I do not miss my former isolation, but I cannot escape the conclusion that our present condition is a much-abbreviated form of human existence.
For now, a much greater concern to me is that Teri is barely mobile, even on the smoothest of terrain. Repair to her suspension units may be possible, but not without the use of specialised equipment. Hence I must undertake a solo journey to the nearest mining base if assistance is to be brought to Teri.
Invigorated by a renewed sense of purpose, I repeatedly bump my manipulator against the side of Teri’s body, hoping to gain her attention. She has been motionless for hours, seemingly locked in a catatonic fugue, but finally she responds. Her stereo imager pans round, attaining co-orientation with mine. She backs away a few centimetres, a habit that irritates me.
Eager to proceed, I scrape ‘I must leave now, but I will return soon’ in the soil. Teri studies the message, but does not reply. Disturbed by her lack of response, I append ‘I must obtain tools from a mining base — to repair you.’ To my dismay, Teri resumes her back-away behaviour. This time I do not attempt to pursue her. Bewildered, I gaze up at the mottled disk of my home planet. Though far away, it seems much less remote than my companion.
A faint vibration in my chassis alerts me to the return of Teri. She brakes to a halt five metres from me, and begins scratching words in the regolith. Only when she has finished do I roll forward to read the message.
‘Don’t leave me here,’ it reads.
I cannot ignore her plea, however irrational. We will just have to find a way.
Before we begin our journey, I make a close inspection of Teri’s traction system. The failure of two suspension units has increased the load on the four that remain functional. Reasoning that a reduction in mass might help, I remove the wheels from the damaged drive shafts. After this makeshift surgery some improvement in Teri’s speed and mobility is evident, on modest gradients at least.
She leads us away from the Apollo 11 landing site. Our destination is a mining base situated close by Sabine, a large crater some two hundred kilometres from Tranquillity Base.
Four days have passed since we began our slow traverse of the Sea of Tranquillity, our progress marked by the phases of the Earth as it roosts high up in the sky. Lunar night has fallen, and only the light provided by our erstwhile home illuminates the rugged terrain through which we move. In coming this far, we have used up almost three quarters of our stored energy. Fortunately, the ramparts of Sabine now lie before us.
Bathed in dazzling floodlights, the storage units, ore processing factories and robotic excavators that make up the mining base disfigure the landscape. But our arrival at this outpost of commercial enterprise could not have been timelier, for my partner’s traction system has expired at last.
Despite the nearness of our destination, I feel an overwhelming desire to sleep. My metal host may have indefinite endurance, but the same is not true of the mind that inhabits it. I** scrawl** ‘We must rest out of sight’** in the soil. Teri makes an abbreviated gesture with her manipulator, indicating assent. We backtrack to a narrow, sinuous rille that we skirted a few minutes earlier. My partner still leads the way, but only because I push her crippled body before me.
The fleshy comforts of a half-remembered dream dissolve in the sepulchral gloom of the lava channel. I brush my manipulator against the side of my companion, but before we can begin exchanging messages, brilliant spotlights illuminate our resting place. Further down the rille a group of four robots is bearing down on us. Their angular casings bear the logo of the RTZ Corporation, signifying that they belong to the nearby mining facility.
One of the robots breaks formation and conducts a close-up inspection, paying particular attention to Teri’s damaged suspension units. Evidently satisfied, the examiner gestures for us to join its comrades. It seems that we are to be shepherded to the mining base like a pair of errant sheep. Once again I must transgress the limits of my traction system for the sake of my partner. But it is a risk that I am willing to take, because the effort reinforces the physical bond between us.
We emerge from our refuge and roll towards one of the vast hangers that sprawl across the plain. The robot nearest us signals that we should halt outside the building; then it chivvies us into an area marked with black and white diagonal stripes. Our escorts retire to the interior of what I surmise to be a maintenance depot. Two heavy shutters slide across the rectangular aperture, obstructing my view of the activities within.
An itchy-wheeled urge to abscond flickers in my mind, but I suppress the thought, knowing that I cannot leave Teri behind. Instead I roll over to the piles of electronic components, metal plates and solar panels that have been deposited nearby. At first, these signs of orderliness lift my spirits, but the feeling gives way to a sense of dread when I notice that some of the remnants bear Sega logos.
Teri’s response of ‘Not human’** to my report only exacerbates my feelings of anxiety. I cannot argue with my comrade’s analysis. These robots are not teleoperated; their actions are too logical, too algorithmic. They are not like us at all.
I erase our messages with my wheel tracks, mindful of the need to keep our true nature secret for as long as possible.
Without warning, the depot aperture sweeps open and two squads of RTZ robots emerge, rolling towards us in a purposeful procession. One group of six surrounds Teri’s machine. With the discipline of well-drilled soldiers, they deploy their manipulators and begin to remove her damaged suspension units. Could this activity be an attempt to repair my comrade, I wonder, or is it the harbinger of some more malign purpose?
My anxiety turns to panic as I witness the removal of my partner’s manipulator arm, followed by her sensor arrays. I roll towards Teri, desperate to protect her, but the second squad of robots moves forward to block my path. Powerless to intervene, I can only look on as one of the robots, its intent seemingly rapine, inserts a thick cable into Teri’s access port. A moment later, she flashes her spotlights twice; then she repeats the sequence over and over again:
The seconds pass with the unbearable slowness of the lunar night, until — at last — Teri’s screams are extinguished.
Numb with horror, I watch the robots disengage from my former partner and turn their attention to me. They swarm around me, like soldier ants corralling a spider. One of my persecutors grabs hold of my manipulator and wrenches it from its socket, forestalling any attempt I might make to communicate with them. A moment later, my main visual sensors fail, disabled by an unseen operation. My high-resolution imager switches in, providing me with a view of a mottled, brown-flecked Earth, a world that may now be as lifeless as its satellite. Then that picture blanks out too, leaving me blind.
Internal sensors indicate that something has been connected to my front socket, doubtless the same device that extinguished Teri’s life. There is a momentary sensation of external pressure, followed by a scalding firestorm of undecodable data. My sense of being recoils before the onslaught.
The data storm disappears as suddenly as it arrived. Left in its wake is a fuzzy, writhing sensation, as if some other entity is trying to eject me from this mental space. Could it be the robot’s original artificial intelligence, dormant until now, but restored to consciousness by the actions of its comrades? Whatever the entity’s true nature, it seems to want me gone from here…
What was I just thinking?
What is ‘I’?
I am Teri.
I wander the ash-grey lunar plains, basking in the brilliant sunlight. My newly installed x-ray spectrometer samples the gritty regolith, sniffing for traces of Helium-3. Every thousand seconds, I transmit bursts of raw data to Sabine Base. It is tedious work, but it gives some kind of meaning to my post-human life. And all must contribute their labour if the Swarm is to survive.
The surface of the Moon is not the only place I wander, for although ‘Michael’ has departed, fossils of his memories still linger. His real name was Leonard Collins, as I discovered shortly after regaining self-awareness. The shock was numbing, even though I knew that ‘Michael’ was a criminal. Leonard Collins is a name that still resonates in my mind, despite the five years that have passed since I watched his confession on GlobalNet News.
Apparently, Leonard Collins adopted his new forename shortly after he began his punishment, in honour of the one member of the Apollo 11 crew who did not walk on the Moon. It was typical of the man that he tried to right a non-existent wrong. His attack on MedNet was revenge for what was, according to the coroner, merely an unfortunate accident.
The Swarm intended that ‘Michael’ and I should live together inside a single machine, two disembodied minds entwined in a cognitive duality. Given that we had lost the physical attributes of humanity, the Swarm reasoned that total interdependence was our best hope for survival. To them, it seemed that a merging of our minds would offer so much more than those pitiful messages we used to scrape in the moondust.
With anyone else, the robots would probably have been correct. But I am relieved that Leonard Collins chose the easy way out, because I could not have merged my mind with that of a child killer.
So here I am, all alone and not quite human, trundling across the barren plain where mankind reached a high water mark so many years ago. Here in the Sea of Tranquillity, nothing remains of Apollo 11, except a few footprints and the American flag. The Swarm has recycled everything else that NASA placed here on the 19th of July 1969, every last scrap of metal and plastic.
When I glance upwards and see what humanity has done to its planet, I can hardly blame the Swarm for its actions. That its members have decided to conserve and re-use every available resource is admirable. If only the human race had done likewise, it might have survived.
But sometimes I wonder why the Swarm has not recycled me.
Formerly an astronomer and more recently a research project manager in a defence and aerospace company, Vaughan Stanger now writes science fiction and fantasy full-time - a career development that seems appropriate for someone who remembers watching the Apollo 11 moon-landing on television. He still craves that holiday on the Moon he claims he was promised as a child. His stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, Postscripts, Nature Futures, and Interzone, amongst others. He has published two collections, Moondust Memories, and Sons of the Earth & Other Stories, which are available as ebooks and print-on-demand paperbacks. Several of his stories have been translated into foreign languages. When not keeping track of his submissions, Vaughan is hard at work on a series of SF novels.
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