His Name In Lights
A novelette originally published in the Universe Annex of the Grantville Gazette.
On the strongly volcanic and radiation-soaked surface of the moon Io, the smallest mishap means mortal peril, even for artificial humans like Daniel and Oscar. Clones are expendable and easy to re-create. Why then does company boss Eilin Gunnarsson care so much about these young men that she sends them warnings written on the clouds of Jupiter?
Read the part of the first scene below.
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Start of the story:
The time display said 33.16, an hour and a half after sunset. Daniel was so tired that he no longer appreciated the spectacular sky where Jupiter occupied a significant proportion of the horizon, an immense ball in white and red pajama-stripes. By its red-orange light, he staggered off the plate-ramming machine, rubbing muscles stiff with fatigue.
“Finished,” he said, a pre-set command, voice-cast to the immediate surroundings. His tech-bot team needed only that one word to start packing, which they did with their usual robotic efficiency.
Oscar rose from a crouch where he had been taking measurements. His voice-cast went straight into Daniel’s ears. “Hurry up. Scanner says an earthquake’s coming this way.”
“I’m onto it.” Thank goodness, only one more job to do.
Daniel slid the vibration gun out of its housing, ran his hand over the thick rim of hardened polymer that stuck about a hand-width out of the dust, found the joint between the two plates by touch, and attached the electrodes. Click – power. The gun hummed. Along the depth of the plates, about ten meters into the yellow soil, billions of atoms heated up, re-arranged themselves and formed a new matrix that glued the two plates together, completing the ring around the planned settlement.
Done. Great. Daniel straightened and looked over the dry valley, where the rims of seven similar rings stuck out of the ground, eight concentric plastic circles, the smallest more than 100 meters across, of carefully calibrated thickness and distance from each other: the installation that formed the planned settlement’s earthquake protection shield. A beautiful design.
“I’m done. Oscar, pack up your gear and–”
Crack. He didn’t hear it–the whisper-thin atmosphere meant there was little sound–but he could feel it in the parched dust under his feet.
[emergency decision module]
[possible scenarios: 1. something in the ground cracked, 2. the seam has split]
The voice in his head soothed him. Yes, he could have figured these possibilities out himself, but he liked to hear confirmation, a clear plan to work to.
He knelt in the yellow dust and ran his sensitive fingertips over the rim. There was a hair-crack in the seam. He pulled the vibration gun out again–
The ground rumbled.
[emergency decision module]
[possible scenarios: 1. something–]
Yeah, yeah, he got it; he might not be considered entirely human yet, but he wasn’t stupid.
Now the split was wide enough for the tip of his little finger. “Uhm, Oscar, maybe we should go back to the truck.”
[advice: survey surroundings]
The caterpillar vehicle and its trailer stood near the far perimeter of the proposed new settlement, beyond white lines painted in the dust, where the major infrastructure would be built. Two tech-bots were tying empty crates onto the trailer bed in preparation for their return to Calico Base.
[advice: monitor geological activity]
Oscar was lazily packing away the geo-scanner, tying the leads in neat bundles before putting them into the case. “I wouldn’t worry about quakes now. We’re inside the barrier.”
Daniel cut off the internal voice. “A section of the inner ring just broke–Look, there, behind you!”
Black clouds billowed on the far side of the valley. Thick volcanic dust with flecks of orange. Damn it, an entire new volcano had sprung up–
[emergency decision module]
[advice: 1. calm down, 2. prioritize personal survival]
Daniel ran, stumbling over the bucking ground. The neat white lines that demarcated the building site distorted under his feet. Rocks shook free of the yellow dirt.
To his right, a section of the outermost earthquake barrier flew out of the ground, a solid sheet of black plastic more than ten centimeters thick. The second barrier came up, buckled . . .
Yellowish sulfuric dust fell from the air, little specks of heat burning on his skin. Vision became murky. He switched to IR view. The rain of hot dust thickened. Daniel ran as fast as his human muscles and his mechanical frame could carry him.
Quick, the truck. He jumped up onto the caterpillar wheel, opened the cabin, crawled in.
[advice: 1. calm down, 2. shut cabin door]
Daniel froze. Shut the door and leave Oscar out there? He screamed into the billowing dust, “Oscar!”
[advice: volcanic dust is dangerous for equipment]
[advice: shut the–]
“Yes! Shut up!”
He grabbed his head. The module was wrong. Survival wasn’t just about himself. Real people would look after each other. He wanted to be a real person.
[advice:1. calm down, 2. shut cabin door]
It hurt, it hurt his brain. He had to obey; the stupid routine was part of him.
He slammed the hatch shut and sank in the driver’s seat, jabbing at switches and buttons. Thoughts raced each other through his mind.
[advice: unit XRZ-26 is programmed to find his own way back]
There’s no handle on the outside of the door.
[advice: unit XRZ-26 has excavation and cutting equipment]
I’m not leaving Oscar out there.
The truck powered up and displayed the surrounding terrain on the viewscreens, in IR vision. Most of the projection was a soup of grey, the regular scenery blanked out by an incredibly bright spot of spewing liquid. It looked like a water fountain, but was molten rock bursting from Io’s molten interior.
“Do you copy, Oscar?”
Oscar’s voice-cast came over the intercom, irregular, as if he was running. “Yes, I’m coming–” A silence and then, “Shit.”
“Hang on, buddy, I’m coming.”
Daniel crunched the truck into gear, but as the vehicle lurched forward, there was a sharp heave of the ground, followed by a snap. Something clanged against the outside of the cabin, and warnings flashed over the controls. A few seconds later the power flickered out. The floor tilted forward. Daniel scrambled over the seat towards the back of the vehicle, just as the front of the truck crunched into stone, and hung there, metal creaking. In the pitch dark cabin, Daniel could see nothing except the red glow of a button that said emergency.
There was no reply.
What now, what now? The inside of his head was quiet; he sensed the emergency routine was re-calibrating after he had ignored its commands and it was taking an extraordinarily long time in doing so. A moment of panic struck. Was it ever going to come back?
“Come on, tell me. What should I do now?”
Nothing. The cabin filled with eerie, throbbing darkness.
You wanted to be a regular human? Well, here you are.
Daniel hit that red glowing button.