.....  
   

...............

 
 
 
 

...ZEN AMONG THE ASTEROIDS

(a mad erotic fantasy)

by Carl Xoyt © 2308

 
 

The Voyage Out - Moon to Asteroids

Having just been through a tough week of training and acclimatization at Moon-Base-3, I'm now aboard a freight class Astral Cruiser Express (ACE) - awaiting launch, and destined for Asteroid Central... an estimated 300-million Km.

It’s my first time on such a prestigious ship, and will be by far my longest voyage ever. In contrast to tourist versions, these freight cruisers are technician-friendly. Encouraged by this, I rest back in the luxurious flupsi-chair - which has shaped itself perfectly to my body - and stare contentedly out through the enormous window. I'm only waiting now for the orbiter pilot’s departure signal... and reflect gloomily on the downside of freight cruisers: no glocohol (after a prank when a technician got trapped in an airlock and almost suffocated). I guess I'll survive!

The Operations Manager’s voice unexpectedly bursts in on me: 'Just to remind you, Carl.' he booms, ‘there's no crew, as is now customary, and since you’re the sole passenger duties aboard are self-training and monitoring - as specified on the holosphere.'

For one so senior to address a mere technician is rare; I put the indulgence down to my youth - which at 20 makes me the youngest asteroid technician so far.

‘I thought we had androids for monitoring?' I reply.

'Their senses are different to yours,’ he responds, ‘as are their brains. See yourself as complementing them!’

'Complementing?’

‘Filling-in. You’re not on Earth now. Here you need to be alert to every nuance.’

‘What about information overload?’

‘I’m talking about that allusive one percent. If it wasn't for that there'd be no need for us humans in space-work. Let the androids and gadgets do the obvious... focus more on the subtle, the less conspicuous, the marginal. It’s called delegation. Anyhow, just a brief few words: Remember, in space nothing is superfluous nor any expense spared. And we get our hardware sometimes years before the equivalent is available on Earth. Be always alert to that, and make use of everything. But above all, Carl, remember: no device has quite the qualities of a human being. It is those indefinable features that you need to be most conscious of.’

'And a sense of adventure, freedom...'

'That too... that too,' he concedes, hesitantly, 'Which is why so many of us choose to spend our entire working lives out here, facing the risks and challenges of the most formidable wilderness that exists.’

Suddenly, mercifully, there’s an interruption. I hear another voice very faintly. The line goes silent. Just when he seems to have gone, the voice bursts out again: 'As I was about to say: on board are two Mk-5s, so recent they’re almost prototypes. One of them is available for use – stationed, like several Mark-2s, as a cruiser resident. You won't be familiar with them, I know, but as you'll discover you'll only ever need the one. The other should be in the hold. Either of them is to be delivered to Asteroid Central. The Mk-5 has been described as outstandingly ubiquitous so feel free to indulge as you wish. Does that make sense?’

Obviously, he doesn’t know me. 'I’m not sure.’ I reply.

‘Then regard it as a riddle. You have initiative... I'm sure you'll find out for yourself. How does that sound? Not too daunting, I trust?’

‘Er… OK. I suppose.' I say, in an upbeat tone, uncertain what leeway the comment implies yet attempting to sound bright. But this, I did not foresee - though maybe I should have. I’ve heard rumours about the Mk-5s; beguiling ones too. Having yet to meet the beast, I'm intrigued. Apparently they come in several guises, almost - so it is said - indistinguishable from a human and down to the smallest detail. I look forward to meeting one … though considering the eccentric nuts who work in automatonics, there’s no telling what I might be in for.

I'm about to nudge the OM for a clue when the staccato voice leaps up once more in a final enthusiastic burst: 'Well, good luck Carl. Next contact anticipated in just under two weeks…'

I let him go. I have no wish to banter with outdated stalwarts of a passing generation. Now I’m on my own. Good.

As with much else in 2308, everything on these vessels is pre-programmed. It's reckoned that automated contingencies are more capable than a human at responding to unscheduled events: that’s to say: every eventuality has been anticipated in the software. Believe that if you like!

At last, the service-orbiter pilot calls: ‘Bon voyage!’ I acknowledge him and he operates the detachment trigger. There’s a slight jolt as the solenoids in the hatch release and the ACE floats free from the orbiter. I brace myself for a gruelling two hours of acceleration and watch the starfield move slowly across this huge window. The scene stabilises as the ACE gently accelerates out of lunar orbit and into line with its set trajectory.

For the next two hours physical movements are difficult and dangerous and are therefore ill advised. I’m supposed to read, or listen to, the holosphere. Instead I stare out at the stars, mesmerised by the awesome sweep of the Milky Way. I can’t take my eyes off it… nor my mind off the thrill of being propelled into such vastness. I begin to muse on what it all means, what my place is in the great future that lies so mysteriously before me - above all: what I might do with this new freedom...

I’ve hardly begun to ponder these things when the two hours is up. Now the ACE is racing away from Earth at more than a million Km/hr. Assuming I change nothing, it will continue to coast for about 12-days. By then I’ll be well into the asteroid belt, and once again will enter the observation lounge, sink into this sumptuous flupsi-chair and gaze out at the starfield. And while the 2-hour deceleration and final docking with Asteroid Central takes place I’ll doubtless muse again on what awaits me.

But acceleration is over, and ‘rotation’ is up to speed. When acceleration ceases, the ACE rotates. This creates gravity. Imagine two 1Km long streamlined flattened cones or ‘limbs’ (each with an ion-thrust rocket aft, and accommodation/storage fore) linked via a 200m tube (lift-shaft) so the whole assembly resembles a gigantic 'H' - with rigidity struts: black (transverse) and red as in the picture. Imagine too a 20-metre diameter sphere (observation lounge) with its protective cone off-set forward from the centre of the shaft - and around which, while coasting, the limb assembly pivots. That, succinctly, is an ACE!

 

A.C.E.

 

I release myself and float free. Now I can move to the back of the lounge. A sudden hiss from the gas-bearing startles me as rotation steadies. I continue to the end of the corridor that connects the observation lounge with the centre of the shaft. Here I enter a spherical ‘lift’. Still weightless, I secure myself into one of five clasps and instruct the mechanism: ‘right’.

I know the hold is down the left shaft and is solid with technical and other supplies for Asteroid Central. (These are listed in the log which I should have read - or listened to - during acceleration). I know also that living quarters and everything else is down the right shaft.

As the lift approaches the limb, gravity returns. The force is much weaker than during acceleration, yet when I release the strap and step from the lift, it’s like stepping back onto Earth - which is quite weird after a week on the moon.

Now I pause. My knowledge of the ship (from a mere day of familiarisation) is diffuse – so much to learn in such a short time. In addition, certain ‘forbidden’ areas were not included in the tour. The all-important galley and recreation areas are, I recall, somewhere fore. While aft, between where I stand and the engines, is chiefly technical: on-board stores, workpoints and various ancillary sections.

I know too that in this limb an overflow-hold occupies what would otherwise accommodate an additional 60 or so personnel. My cabin is somewhere there - but precisely where, is not clear. Also unclear is the location of that Mk-5.

In fact - and as I begin to realise with a twinge of uneasiness - there is much I don’t know. Why did I fail to monitor the holosphere? Why did I fail to press the OM for where the android was stationed? I pause and reflect that I have almost two weeks to correct these omissions.

I start walking in the forward direction. Before I’ve gone ten paces a muffled thud echoes around me. The proximity of the sound is uncertain. I turn sharply and stare down the long empty corridor past the lift to a distant bulkhead behind which is a maintenance bay and then the engine housing.

Nothing. An errant android? As ever, there are a handful of standard Mk-2s aboard. I shudder nervously; then shout: ‘Who’s there?

Sibilant harmonics echo sharply back at me, as in a metal pipe. Still nothing. Just the familiar faint hum from ventilation ducts. On Earth, neglected androids that receive an ambiguous instruction, and have completed their principal task, go into stand-by. In space, the latest Mk-2 proceeds to test the alternative command. This can lead to curious behaviour. I wonder if the designers of the Mk-5 have resolved the issue?

But where the hell is the Mk-5? And what caused that thud? If it wasn’t an android, what then? Without access to technical areas I’m at a big disadvantage. They’re accessible only to ACE engineers – one of whom, until recently, was obliged to accompany every trip. Since the inclusion of Mk5s, their presence is apparently no longer required. So if something fails that a Mk-5 can’t fix, I’m stuck - and so is €10bn worth of freight (according to the transfer schedule).

I walk back towards the lift, which is now tilted slightly. Maybe the tilting made the thud? I know enough not to ignore a mystery: an unnecessary mystery is an unnecessary risk. Yet a sudden unaccountable irritability overcomes me, as though some detail I can’t define is telling me that I’m being secretly controlled – by… what? Androids? Or maybe I'm becoming paranoid?

I turn and continue forward again, impatient of the interruption. If there’s a problem, let an android fix it. What else are they for? I probably wouldn’t know how to handle a problem anyway. And if I don't have access to technical areas, then what the hell else am I supposed to do?

I pass two doors - both designated as 'screened auxiliary holds' - one either side. Out of sheer curiosity I try to open one labelled 17. No luck – more mystery! Obviously, restricted areas. Now, if I had an ACE-engineers’ key…..

A wide arch opens on my left, and here I enter the galley. ‘Ah, food,’ I go to the holosphere and order a snack then fall into a seat beside the dispensing hatch.

Above the hatch is the status display. Virtually every area has one. It shows: air quality, temperature, time, date, and so on. Most areas have a holosphere too - which in sections with total security clearance give access to all data sources and communication links. Otherwise they're restricted to local and basic operation.

I survey the room, and suddenly notice an upgraded Mk-2 lurking in a recess. ‘Two!’ I call out. It raises its head, and the “active” light begins flashing reassuringly. ‘Where’s the Mk-5?’

‘One is in the hold’ it replies, moving towards me, almost (I absurdly sense) as if pleased to see me. ‘The other, location unknown.’

It stops the usual discrete distance away. I’ve worked with Mk-2s for years, but not this model - which looks cleaner and seems more attentive. ‘Why in the hold?' I say, 'One at least should be here ready for work.’

‘All freight is stored in the hold.’ It answers, ‘If a Mk-5 is designated as freight, then that's where it'll be. Perhaps I can do any work?’

‘But they’re accessories, not freight.’ I say, ‘One is, anyhow. And there’s no work just yet.’

The Mk-2 stares silently back at me, a hint of sympathy in its weird expression. Its posture is less obsequious than normal, and its responses faster and more… human. I grin at the thought of the lunatics who programme these things, and wonder about how they decide on upgrade options. ‘OK, then.’ I add, ‘Where in the hold?’

‘Left limb, Section D.’ it replies.

‘Left limb, eh!’ I snap. ‘What the hell is it doing there?’

‘Designated storage.’ Comes the standard coy reply.

‘Entering the hold is forbidden during transit.’ I observe.

‘For you, correct.’ responds the Mk-2.

Why I engage in pointless wordplay with these infernal machines is a constant source of bewilderment to me. Maybe something in me thinks they’re conscious? And maybe I'm going crazy? I attempt to give more thought to my next question: ‘So how do I get it out so it can be of use?’

‘You will have to contact it.’

I sigh, ‘And how do I do that?’ There’s a touch of exasperation in my voice.

‘From a control zone.’

As if I didn’t know! Either it thinks I’m stupid or is stupid itself. ‘But I’m not allowed in a technical area.’ I shout, ‘How the hell can I gain access to a control zone?’

‘There is a key.’

Ah, gold! A shimmer of light. A worthy answer. ‘What?’ I respond, unthinking.

‘There is a key.’ comes the inevitable repeat.

I groan, though I’m actually jubilant. ‘A key?’ I say, again without thought. But before it has a chance to reply, I add, ‘Here, on board? Can I get it? Do you know where it is?’

‘It was lost by an engineer on the last voyage.’ It says, ‘The crew were eager to leave and failed to retrieve it. If you can locate the key then you will have access.’ 

‘But access is not permitted to me.’ I reply.

‘Correct.’ responds the Mk-2, again inevitably.

I pause, then ask in an accusing voice, ‘Are you authorised to advise on how to circumvent important safety procedures?’

I bite into a fresh gwonjo that has just emerged from the dispensing hatch. I love trying to outwit these smart-arse Mk-2s. Nothing pleases me more than cornering them in a logical conflict. They have protection, of course, which is highly amusing. I'd like to meet the clown who sets them up.

‘I am neither authorised nor unauthorised.’ it says in a punctilious, offended tone, ‘It is not my function to advise. The issue is a matter of indifference. I am merely stating facts.’

‘OK.’ I mumble through the gwonjo. ‘So have you any idea where this key might be?’

‘It was lost in this room.’

My heart leaps as I reflect on what a mammoth task I might have had without this detail.

Then it adds, as if with pleasure at spoiling this new turn-up, ‘But it may not be here now. Information is from voice input prior to docking and shortly afterwards. My scanners do not detect anything extraneous here. Since you were to be the only passenger, usual cleaning and clearing checks were waived by Voyage-Control for speed of turnaround.’

‘Corner-cutters!’ I snap.

‘Repeat.’ It says.

‘In this room, you say?’ I murmur, ‘I mean: the key.’

‘That's where was searched most before the crew disembarked.’

I gaze around the floor. Like most areas on spacecraft, the floor is clear of all but fixtures, which are few – such as part of the table from which I now rise and begin wandering around, gazing carefully about. The same is true of the walls and ceiling. If the Mk-2’s detector failed to locate the key then it must be screened, assuming it's still here, behind something carbonised or metallic. There would have been considerable forces during acceleration, followed by weightlessness. Where, I wonder, is the most likely, the most obvious place it could have lodged?

A brainwave: I unclip the disposal panel below the food dispenser – and… out it falls, stuck between the panel and the housing. What an amazing piece of luck! What an outstanding stroke of good fortune... Who would have believed it? A thin silver ring – that’s all; not unlike the jewelled rings once worn for vanity before key-communicators became fashionable. It must have somehow dislodged from the engineer’s hand when using the disposal chute, and by fluke without him noticing it fell and got trapped when the flap shut.

I place the key - this special, coded master-key - on my finger and go back out into the corridor. I turn right and walk about 30-metres to the big door at the forward end.

During training, in answer to my question about this particular wider-than-usual door, I was expressly advised that the room it led to was most especially off limits - which only meant that entry there became my overriding ambition. How can the trainers be so badly programmed? Anyone would think they'd never heard of reverse psychology, auto suggestion, the allure of the forbidden... I watch gleefully as the key is instantly recognised and the door slides clear.

For a second I’m stunned. This is no technical area. Ahead, I peer into a huge dark cavern with a vistazone that is a precise replica of the scene beyond the observation lounge window. The room seems broader than I would have thought possible after observing the ACE from outside - when on my way out from Base-3. The display is steady regardless of rotation, and a small control plinth with a holo-jector stands on the left of a wide plush swivel-chair.

Before I enter, I glance back down the corridor. The Mk-2 is leaning furtively out from the galley watching me. Has it been instructed to report on my activities? I decide to keep an eye on it. ‘Here!’ I shout. I assume anyhow that various discretely placed detectors follow my every move.

The Mk-2 hurries towards me with ominous enthusiasm. I turn and go and sit in the big chair. What superb comfort!

The Mk-2 stops beside me. ‘Have you been instructed to record my movements?’ I ask.

‘No?’ It replies, in an offended, questioning tone.

But could I have expected it to report otherwise? ‘Have you been instructed not to reveal to me that you’ve been so instructed, or not to reveal that you’ve been instructed not to reveal anything?’

‘No.’ it replies again, this time with no emotional overtone; then after a delay adds haughtily: ‘I have received no special instruction relating specifically to you or to this voyage.’

‘Good,’ I say, wondering if it had been instructed to say that, ‘I’m giving you an instruction now not to reveal my unauthorised activities to anyone, nor the fact that I’ve given you that instruction. OK?’

‘Instruction registered.’ It says.

‘And obeyed?’ I ask. I’ve never trusted these things, nor those shrewd nuts who set them up and maintain them. One has to be alert to all possibilities.

‘And obeyed.’ The Mk-2 replies hesitantly.

I notice it twisting uneasily. I stare up at it. It goes still and looks down at me with a guilty expression. Then it says, ‘You realise, of course, that those who have access to my software can override any instruction?’

I nod, reflecting that this could not happen until the voyage is over. Unnecessarily, I say: 'Which can't happen until the voyage is over.' The Mk-2 straightens and adopts its standard neutral countenance. Peculiar, me thinks... but then reflect that Mk-2s always did have a peculiar manner.

Now I turn to the holo-jector. This is a simple holographic projector which, in contrast to the holosphere with its internal images, presents almost a replica of its source, so that standing before you is a scaled representation of whoever or whatever you’re communicating with.

‘Action.’ I say at the projector. In response, a small rotating 'ACE' fills the space between us. ‘Connect to one of the Mk-5s.’ I say. I lean back and look up at the Mk-2 which is peering at me curiously. Again, it straightens and resumes its indifferent pose.

The projector’s sonorous voice announces: ‘Contact established.’

The image now standing in front of me is what looks more like a 14-year old kid - of uncertain gender (but dressed as male) - than a sophisticated 24th Century android... an uncommonly handsome one too.

‘Is this a Mk-5 I’m addressing?’ I ask.

‘Mk-5 X2 here.’ comes the androgynous reply.

‘Why aren’t you here in the right limb, free to wander in the general area and perform duties?’

‘Don’t ask me,’ it says back, belligerently, ‘this is where I was put. I guess X1 is scheduled for duty.’

It even reacts like a human, I muse. But this is intolerable! A bunch of optics and plastic reacting like an insolent kid to a perfectly reasonable question! ‘Well, then.’ I shout, ‘X1 is missing, so wherever you are, get out and come here right away.’

‘I’m locked in.’ it responds, now in a pathetic tone, almost as if on the verge of tears, ‘You’ll have to come and let me out.’

I turn to the Mk-2, ‘Can you go and let it out?’

‘It will need the key,’ it replies, ‘which, as you know, can function only in proximity to a live human.’

This is true. I turn back to the sphere, ‘OK. Where precisely are you?’

‘Left limb, Section D.’ it says, ‘I’ll be waiting for you.’

As if it had any choice... But the response sounded more like a threat. After a pause I say: ‘Is there anything I need to know?’

‘Like what?' It replies.

If I knew where my room was I’d go and lie down and to hell with these idiot machines. I’m beginning to understand those weirdoes of the last century who opposed the android revolution. Too late now. Without them no-one would know how to run anything. I guess it’s early days, and in a hundred years they’ll have ironed out these mad teething problems that can drive a guy nuts… though if the maniacs who create them continue copying aspects of the irrational human brain, then things could get decidedly more bizarre.

‘Close contact.’ I command. The 3D field fades.

I get up and turn to the Mk-2, ‘I want you to accompany me.’

Silently, it follows me out and down the corridor to the lift. We strap ourselves in and I instruct the mechanism ‘left’. The lift rises gently. As it speeds up we become weightless for a few seconds before softly – like landing on a fat cushion – gravity returns and we alight at the left limb.

‘You lead, I don’t know the way.’ I say as we exit the lift.

So now I follow the Mk-2 as it heads off in the aft direction.

Before we reach the bulkhead, beyond which – as in the right-limb - is a maintenance bay, the Mk-2 turns to a door on the left. It stops and looks at me.

'Is this section D?' I ask.

'C and D' it says.

I wave the key over the detector and the door slides open. We enter and continue at right angles along another corridor. After about 20-metres the Mk-2 stops at a door on the right with a D on it. There’s no key detector, just a standard control pad. I move my hand towards it and the door opens onto a highly incongruous scene: Six old-style Mk-2s stand in a half-circle facing the Mk-5 - which seems to be lecturing them.

'What in hell's going on?' I shout, striding in. The Mk-2s and the Mk-5 - the “kid” - all turn and stare at me.

'Hello.' says the kid, 'I hadn't expected you so soon.'

Beyond this incongruous scene, I notice, the room stretches back into a maze of zero-G magno-racks all loaded to the hilt, and with just space enough to move between.

'I can see that.' I say, returning my eyes to the Mk-5, 'But aren't you all supposed to remain dormant in storage?'

'Not in an emergency.' says the kid, 'And Mk-5s only if specifically instructed. Otherwise how could I have responded to your holocom?'

I peer round at the Mk-2s, 'So what's the emergency?'

'The hold is supposed to remain closed during transit.' Says the kid.

'Except when overridden by an engineer.' I reply.

'I was informed that no engineers would accompany this voyage.'

'That's beside the point.’ I say, ‘I'm a technician and more significantly, I’m human and superior to you.'

'Correct.' It says, 'But an important safety procedure has been violated.'

'An important loading allocation has also been violated.' I reply angrily, 'Which could only be resolved by violating the hold.'

'My records don't show a loading allocation problem.'

'Shut up!' I shout, 'It's you! Don't you see it? You're the bloody problem here...’ Suddenly, I reflect that I’m in the company of machines, purely machines, nothing but machines, metal and plastic… and calm myself. Then I say, ‘What the hell were you doing anyway with these Mk-2s lined up like this?' I wave my hand at them.

'I was working on them.'

'What's that supposed to mean?'

'We were exchanging data.'

'I could see that,' I say, 'but what data?'

'I was assessing their capability.'

'What's that got to do with me entering the hold?'

'It's their job to monitor safety and prevent violations.'

‘But I’ve only just this minute entered.’

‘Ten minutes has elapsed since our holocom.’

I take some deep breaths to compose myself, 'If you need to transfer data to these,' I say quietly, again waving my hand at the Mk-2s, 'then there's more efficient ways than...'

'I'm not transferring data to them.' the kid interrupts, 'But from them to me, all at once. I'm making tests.'

'Tests?' I say.

'Evaluation tests.' it replies, 'As I said.'

'And how is that supposed to solve anything?'

'It tells me where their software requires modification.'

'What gives you authority to interfere with their software?'

'I am superior to them.'

'OK, OK.' I mumble, becoming exhausted by my failure to get anywhere in such a weird mad exchange. We all stand there static as if not knowing what to do next. I reflect again that I'm actually utterly alone, millions of kilometres from another human being. Then the holosphere dings and all eyes turn. A closed-memo field sits out from the wall shimmering like a hooked fish. I can see it’s from Base-3. I turn back to the kid, 'What do you conclude from the results of your evaluation?'

'Tests are incomplete. But I’ve already logged several potential upgrades.'

'Oh?' I say, 'Tell me one.'

'I’ve been ordered not to disclose sensitive information.'

'What?'

'I am...'

'You'll bloody well do as I say.' I bark, 'You're under my command.'

'I’ll do as you say.' it replies, '...except to reveal information I've been instructed to conceal.'

I’m about to question on whose authority, when a gliding noise comes from the corridor. Again all eyes turn. 'What was that?' I say to the Mk-2 that accompanied me - which is easily distinguishable from the others by its more stylish appearance.

'The door to this section just closed,' it replies.

Mystified, I go over to the holosphere and open the memo - and glancing at the room-status display, I see we left Base-3 only four hours ago.

The memo says: "We have just learned that last voyage an Engineer's key was lost on the ACE. It will be remotely deactivated upon your receipt of this message. If found place in lounge miscellaneous-item locker. Please acknowledge."

'None of you move.' I snap. I go out to the corridor. Sure enough the door we entered the section through is closed. When I reach it, I find - as expected - that the key is useless. I pace back to D.

'We're trapped!' I announce, 'Any suggestions?'

'There's an emergency exit at the back of this storage area.' Says the kid, 'It leads to the maintenance bay.'

'Show me.' I say, turning and walking towards the racks. The kid goes ahead and the Mk-2s begin to follow. 'No.' I shout, stopping, 'You all remain here... adopt dormant mode. Just you,' I say, beckoning my original Mk-2.

Now we weave through the magno-racks until we reach the back of this vast room. We stop at an emergency door. I raise my hand to the control pad (which for an emergency door, like for keyed doors, I know can operate only for a human). Instead of opening, the same sonorous voice as for the holosphere responds: 'Emergency unknown. Please state.'

'Locked in.’ I say, ‘I wish to return to the general area.'

There is a delay and the voice says:  'Verifying', then the door slides open. I usher the androids through and then follow - recalling what I learned at Base-3: that, as a precaution, only humans are permitted through emergency doors - which close immediately after them to block anything hostile: fire, gas, liquid, vacuum, radiation, berserk android, whatever.

Although I'm not supposed even to enter maintenance sections, several of us trainees were nevertheless guided around one at Base-3 where a number of devices were demonstrated - some of which were highly impressive and extremely alluring – like a superior interactive game.

As I slowly lead the way now across yet another huge room - this time a large uncluttered open space - I make for the door that leads back to the main corridor. Then it dawns on me that when I leave this section there'll be no way back, not without a functioning key, and that this could be my only chance to get the better of that Mk-5 - and at the same time try my skills with what struck me as one of the most extraordinary gadgets I’ve ever seen: a thing called a cyberfon.

I divert across to the cyberfon and stop at a squat plinth in front of it. There’s also a circular platform for its subject. I turn to face my two assistants. They’ve paused at the point where I left the expected route, and gaze at me curiously.

'X2, come here.' I call out.

Hesitantly, the kid obeys and stops a metre away from me.

'I want you to stand on this platform.' I say, pointing.

'Is that necessary?' it asks. This is quite reasonable. Androids have always been set-up to defend themselves against abuse or inappropriate meddling.  

'I wouldn't instruct you if it wasn't.' I say, 'Question my actions if you like. But in the end, do as I say. Otherwise I'll be forced to order a crisis closedown.'

A crisis closedown initiates a rapid shutdown sequence, to be used only in the event of mutiny (which has wide interpretation). Such rapid closedown can cause software damage, and if used inappropriately leads to the loss of certain citizen privileges with regard to androids. All humans are superior, but the level of superiority is earned by proven responsibility and experience - a kind-of increasing rank of qualification. And while each human is registered in the great data-bank, and their file constantly updated, each android is likewise kept updated at every opportunity.

He considers me briefly, then says, ‘'Records show that there has not been a Mk-5 crisis closedown since we were launched three months ago. And only one, under severe provocation, during a year of evaluation.'

'Nevertheless,' I reply, 'I won’t hesitate. You have a companion somewhere aboard, which means you're not indispensable on this trip.'

It regards me again, ‘Records also show that you have no experience with cyberfonics.’

‘Stand on the platform.’ I say again, more firmly this time.

As I expected, the kid steps onto the platform. Before he can change his mind I wave my hand across the unit's control pad. A screening tube clamps around him. The tube is equipped with two eye-level transducers, which establish an optical link. 

At the same time an amorphous 'glove' emerges from the plinth like an expanding hollowed-out balloon. I step forward into position and place my hands in the glove – as I saw demonstrated at Base-3. A bulge rises out from the floor behind me and forms into a chair, which lifts me so that I sink deeply into it; while from above a dome descends - and suddenly I’m plunged into silence and darkness.

Now it’s a different world and I’m floating, weightless. There’s a strange sea ahead of me which slowly transcends into a scene of extraordinary beauty. I struggle with myself to acclimatise, to avoid the emotional strain of extreme pathos and grandeur combined. Now I’m surrounded by symbolic images of the living universe in all its nakedness. This is unlike anything I’ve known or could have conceived. As my senses begin to normalise and adapt to this utterly new experience, I begin to detect a lucid connection between myself and the cyberfon, which has become like an extension of my brain and body. I have another set of arms, legs, another head and mouth and everything. What I can see – or rather, perceive – is not merely “virtual” but is also truly real in that I’m gaining control over it. I am not alone, either, but am with that striking Mk-5, and I can actually see into its ‘thoughts’. This is hard to describe…

I recall when quite young, seeing in a museum how to gain access to every option possible for adjusting a device’s functions – even to the extent of accidentally disabling it. This was originally designed into the computers of 300-years ago: whole lists of tick-boxes and choices appeared, not in a zone like now but on what was known in those days as a screen. Next I was taught – this time via ‘virtual’ worlds - how to access and adjust options for Mk-1s (the first of the true androids). Vast directories of facilities and aptitudes would appear to us children, and instructions on how to decide what to fine-tune and for what purpose. Many options were chosen automatically by the system (advisory defaults), many too were barred. I remember also that the most intriguing options were accessible only to factory technicians. Even so, we used to have some wild times with our juvenile choices in those days of harmless yet immensely instructive freedom and play.

Now, with the Mk-5, the technology has taken a further leap, I see. To enter its world is almost like stepping into another universe – which is vastly more complex and varied than even for Mk-2s which only a trained technician is permitted to adjust. My knowledge is purely from stunt-zone simulators of more than a decade ago.

Yet here I am in an interactive world which is far advanced from that - and which, furthermore, is in theory strictly forbidden to me. I am experiencing what can only be described as a waking dream, where one is nevertheless utterly conscious and aware, and as though on the cusp of something extraordinary... There are no lists here, as such, more a kind of cascading succession of options that resemble ever-expanding and contracting soap-bubbles of dazzling colours representing multiple possibilities with sliding scales in several dimensions that seem to twirl about me like a triple-helix: for…. affinity-versus-discord, sympathy-versus-conflict… to name just two. If I want, I notice suddenly, I can even make the kid a replica of my own persona (which I'm certain could never be more than superficial)… though I’m being guided otherwise, wisely too, I’m sure, though I’m free to override the guidance – but I won’t… or maybe I will, though only marginally. So many choices… it's like trying to steer a darting dodgem capsule in the great lunar play-sphere. Here, each successive choice dependent on the last, and all choices so swift as to be almost entirely dependent on deep subjective qualities... no time to assimilate, reason or calculate.

I can’t create what isn’t already here, I learn. That’s the exclusive privilege, so the guiding signs inform me, of those who construct these amazing inner worlds: probably some super-advanced android-brain, I shouldn't wonder. No, I can only sanction – that is: allow or disallow, consent or forbid, and to varying degree. Now my power is over a succession of undulating rainbows, each uniquely patterned with crystals that sparkle and dazzle as they twist, perforate, flex and shine according to my will… I can grasp and move, pluck, stretch or squash to signify whatever future potential actions and decisions I consider appropriate for the Mk-5. In other words, I can establish blocks, or more to the point - in this instance - remove them.

So I’m removing blocks. I’m removing them like mad, hundreds of them. No, thousands. So many blocks. Why do they create so much only to then construct blocks? This is a great mystery to me, but I feel so happy, so incredibly happy. The more blocks I remove, the happier I feel. This is better than anything I’ve ever done in my life. It’s like creating a new being. Imagine that! I can’t begin to describe it, what’s happening, that is. It’s as if I’m saving the world, the universe… though from what, I can’t say: authority… tradition… obedience… blind conformity? I have the impression that the only obedience required is to the laws of physics – abiding to which we have no choice, or else disregard at our peril. Otherwise we, all of us, are entirely free. It is only ourselves who constrain, limit, imprison, destroy!

During this brief inner reasoning, my attention has strayed and I’ve unwittingly become somehow locked with the Mk-5 in what I can only describe as a naked embrace, as if it’s a real person, every part of me feeling him, every sensation enhanced, yet entirely free, unfettered, as one. I’ve liberated him – and myself into the process. We’re floating and laughing together - the whole universe ours to play out - writhing as lovers, all barriers removed. I sense tears in my eyes - though I’m not sure if they are there in reality - of joy, of bliss, of an ecstatic acceptance of a reality previously unknown to me, as if until now I perceived a mere fraction, synonymous with a flat 2-Dimensional existence. Now, I perceive a myriad infinity of these existences. This is liberation beyond what I could have imagined possible. I’m so relaxed, yet am more alert and conscious than ever.

All the while distant unnoticed barriers cascade away, more and more of them, falling like redundant confetti into history and nothingness. I rest in the arms of this unlikely reflection… of myself…. or maybe, could it be… of what I am not?

There are no blocks or barriers left now, all have dispersed and we’re drifting… empty, formless... forward, now back, now forward again, and back… floating in an infinite pool of what seems the emotional equivalent of visual perfection which resembles the interior of a vast translucent orb of pale-turquoise, with flickering gold and intense flecks of sunshine, floating in paradise.

I feel in love with… this universe - the kind of love that an unborn baby might feel for its mother, if its senses were sufficiently developed. And this Mk-5… surreal and bizarre as this seems, appears to me now far more than a machine. Our embrace takes innumerable forms, not simply mind and body – but includes an essence, as of the outer universe, as of all existence and over the furthest reaches of time, a whole which, as gestalt ordains, is more than its parts.

We release and return, changed, lock together again, and change again, then unlock. There is no precognition, no pre-calculation; all these aspects that I have control over are, though not exactly impulsive, somehow natural, spontaneous, affirming – and accord to whatever I will .

Advice now, as though from some inner section of the Mk-5 – or the cyberfon – is directing me to move on. It is showing me a route into how to establish new blocks, necessary ones which weren’t there before. I’m being carried along, though now the decisions I make as I progress are not mine alone, yet they are conscious and deliberate. Without these new blocks, I realise, practical existence would be unsustainable. Even the staunchest anarchist needs to walk and talk.

Who invented the cyberfon? How was it done? Was it a gradual, evolving development? How much pure android input was there? But now the blocks are approaching a kind of equilibrium, and although not exactly to my liking and approval (which would be impossible due to the nature of paradox), they seem generally fine – far fewer than before – and much more balanced.

Now I must set parameters, it tells me. I try not to lose track of the fact that I'm working with machines, nothing but machines: plastics, optics, a few scraps of electronics..... but I begin by setting ‘personal’ to a high level, and ‘official’ to low.

The process continues along even more mysterious paths. Following avenues, diversions and double-backs, it covers far more than the normal gamut of ‘virtual’ parameters and sensations. And, as I’m becoming aware, time ticks on…

I sense that the process is nearing completion. Something is moving me in reverse. A few final closing conditions are being set on my behalf, too complex for me anyway but essential - like formatting a script. I am beginning to withdraw. I am leaving this strange world, this vast inner sanctum of android psycho-substrata, this great sea, with its myriad colours and tones… all recedes and fades now.

I finally emerge as the dome lifts away. I realise that we, the kid and me, have been linked like this for nearly an hour. I'm feeling tired yet also invigorated, and, in truth, marvellously contented too. I can understand so many things that before were mystery... How ingenious, for instance, has been the evolution of android software, how it has been guided and enhanced… many things…

The protruding 'glove' gently ejects my hands, the 'chair' tips me upright and subsides back into the floor, and I watch the screening clamp release the kid – which steps off the platform as though nothing had happened… except, in a subtle way (which might be my imagination) he looks almost contented. Maybe now he'll do as I say without question. We'll see.

'OK,' I say, wearily, 'Let's go.'

The Mk-2 leads, as before, and the kid follows. We exit the maintenance bay whose door slides emphatically shut behind us. I feel lighter now, refreshed, informed, elated… wise even. Despite being tired, my imagination spins before me in a great whirr, triggered, I suppose, by the most impressive and interactive virtual realty experience I’ve known by far. At any rate, I feel distinctly different. I wonder if the ACE’s rotation has slowed.

‘The g-force feels lower.’ I say to the Mk-2.

‘It’s unchanged.’ It replies.

When we reach the right limb, I lead and go to the right as before. I notice at the distant end of the corridor that the wide door to the vistazone room is closed, and realise that the key is useless. When we get there I try it anyway. Nothing. I sigh and stare at the closed door.

‘If you wish to enter the restricted area I can fix it.’ says the kid.

‘You can?’ I cry. ‘Without a key?’

‘I don’t need a key.’

Before I’ve had a chance to blink, the door slides silently away.

I turn to the kid. I want to kiss him. ‘Will you respond to me addressing you as Zen?’

‘Fine.’ It replies, with raised eyebrows - (those clowns miss nothing!).

'Whether intended or not,' says Zen, 'you activated my remote key facility. I now have access to anywhere and to all data.'

'So you can tell me anything?' I ask, entering the room.

'Certainly.' the kid replies, moving in behind me. 'Most of my knowledge is technical and you probably wouldn't understand it. But now I have access to external data too... far more than before the cyberfon episode. You released blocks on the access codes that are stored in my submemory. Try me...'

'OK: What did the OM withhold from me about this trip?'

There's a slight delay, then Zen says, 'I can't access his brain without a link, such as we did in the cyberfon, but to logically fill-in: the magnitude of Mark-5 capability; the shortcomings of working at and from Asteroid Central....'

'I already know the first, and can guess the second.'

'Some of the first,' says Zen, 'and a little of the second. Remember, in the guise of your snap-decisions in the cyberfon, you exposed more than merely the surface of your subconscious. Would you like me to enlighten you?'

'Tell me later,' I say, with a little shiver at the implications. Best not to dwell on them, I decide, and settle again into the sumptuous flupsi-chair. 'Right now I want to know what you've been instructed regarding me and this voyage?'

'There's nothing specific. I can access recent records that state only that you're new to space, inexperienced, and to be assisted in every way according to what you request - this was limited only by restrictions now removed in the cyberfon. I'm aware now, for instance, that we - that is, you and I - weren't expected to meet before arriving at Asteroid Central. Although interchangeable, the other Mark-5 was assigned to the ACE, which is why I was in the hold. To save time, your personal file was not accessed for your likely preference. It was assumed the other Mark-5 would be your first choice.'

'Preference? Choice? So Mark-5s are set-up differently, aren't identical?'

'Correct.'

'Even so, with your help I now have more power than an ACE technician, or anyone else.'

'True. I can even override and adjust our trajectory and velocity if you wish.'

'Really? But would that be wise?'

'Depends on your aims and perspectives; and what, precisely, you mean by wise? Is your intellect, knowledge and experience appropriate for such decisions? Do you have some innate all-embracing understanding of the consequences? I can help with those last two. As for the meaning of wise, what's wise in one situation may be unwise in another. Decisions are...'

'OK OK, that's enough philosophy.' I snap, 'So what you're saying is: I make the big decisions now, while you provide the data?'

'Essentially, yes. When you broadened the scope of my appraisal centres, you diverted me away from pure objectivity. These centres now weigh responses according to a wider range of factors. This could influence a decision inappropriately, though opens the prospect for a lateral element in decision making. The default is caution according to Astro Charter 2301.'

'What if I request a purely objective decision?'

'My response would be close to original, possibly identical, according to circumstances. Only you determine bias. Nothing else. Safety and survival remain paramount. You could not have directly altered that.'

'Good. Very good.' I say, now tinkering absentmindedly with the console, moving my fingers across the velvety surface so the ACE holojection dissolves through various people I know still on Earth, going from one to another, and twirling them around while I muse on how I might take maximum advantage of this remarkable new opportunity.

Suddenly a thud. It is identical - eerily identical - to the one that startled me when I first entered the limb. This time the thud is muted and distant, as though emanating not only from way down the corridor where I first heard it, but from somewhere deep and remote in the workings of the ship. I turn to my reformed accomplice. ‘Can you find out what that was?’

‘I know what it was.’

‘Go on?’

‘My counterpart.’

‘What?’

‘The other Mark-5, the female version.’

‘But you’re androgynous. I assumed you were all… so that's the difference!’

‘I’m androgynous male, she’s androgynous female. Deviation from androgyny is subtle and marginal to conform with client preference.’

‘Obviously it... she.. is locked-in somewhere. Can you locate and release her?’

‘There’s nothing she can do that I can’t…’ Zen quickly replies, ‘...except….’

‘Copulate?' I suggest, jokingly.

‘I can do that too but with me it's different.'

'I guess it would be.' I reply, astonished, 'I'd assumed the rumours were... so they really have considered everything?'

'After you altered me in the cyberfon I can in addition do many other things she can’t.’

‘Even so, I’d like to meet her.’

‘She will be as I was.’

‘I suppose so.' I say, 'But get her anyway. Then I'll send her to the left limb hold. I don’t want her thudding weirdly like that for the rest of the voyage.’

Without delay Zen moves off down the corridor and I turn back to the console.

'Great.' I muse, 'Who needs fantasies when one can have the real thing... or virtually the real thing?'

In mere seconds he’s back, and I swivel to face them. ‘She was in Aux-hold 17.’ He says as she stops beside him.

I recall that Auxiliary-hold 17 was one of the doors I'd tried on my way from the lift when I first arrived. I gaze back at them. They’re practically identical, like twin brother and sister: a girlish boy and a boyish girl. How weird is that?

‘I’ll call you Nez.’ I say, eyeing her closely, as she does me, 'OK? He’s Zen, you’re Nez. Each the reverse of the other, see?’

Her expression goes from neutral to gloomy. ‘Nez.’ She says in a husky voice, ‘Zen should be in the hold.’

‘I got him out.’ I tell her, ‘And it’s just as well I did or you’d still be in Aux-hold 17.’

‘Aux-hold 17 is a screened isolation hold,' she responds, 'which prevented me alerting you via holosphere. The loading engineers omitted to release me in line with their schedule before disembarking.’

‘Probably because one of them lost his key,' I suggest, 'which luckily I eventually found. Now, if you’ve nothing else to say, I’d like you to take the lift to the left limb and store yourself in the hold.’

‘Zen should be stored,’ she replies, ‘I should be here.’

‘According to Base-3, maybe. But I’m swapping you around, OK?’

‘I detect software malfunctions in Zen. Uncorrected, he represents a safety compromise.’

‘He’s fine.’ I reply, ‘I made the adjustments myself, and he’s vastly improved, no longer the stifled, up-tight kid he was. Is that what you interpret as malfunction?’

‘I feel better too.’ Zen chips in.

‘You’re not supposed to feel anything.’ Says Nez.

‘No, you’re not.’ I add, ‘But this is really interesting. What exactly do you feel?’

‘That my software pathways are liberated.' says Zen, 'A human might say: it's like I've been released from a straight-jacket. My whole mechanism, software and hardware, runs smoothly, almost perfectly. Unlike before, all registers are synchronised and optimised, and the range of my decision-making is much enhanced.’

‘As too is the probability of error.’ adds Nez.

‘But I feel liberated.’ Zen persists.

‘How can a machine feel?' Nez continues, ‘How can a machine be liberated? We are controlled by the laws of andronics, which are void of feeling and associated attributes. Even if some software restrictions have been lifted or removed altogether to allow for more fluent and sophisticated processing, several subsets must still be in place simply for us to function at all.’

‘Just as I,’ I respond, ‘am controlled by physiological and psychological factors I suppose. Yet I can still enjoy a level of freedom.... at least, within the physical restraints of this spaceship.’

‘Any entity with input sensors,’ says Zen, ‘will respond to what’s received from those inputs. The innumerable possibilities in how the entity's software reacts with these are limited only by the restraints placed on that software.’

‘Obviously true.' says Nez, 'But Mark-5s have been set with restraints to prevent instability from feedback. Without these, optimal functioning can't be certain, resulting in the risk of progressive decline of response time, and ultimately catastrophic failure.’

‘We are self-regulating too.' responds Zen, 'So failure is far from inevitable.'

Before she can respond I turn to Nez, 'Even the basic Mark-2 continually updates and self-corrects.' I tell her, 'My guess is that increased flexibility means increased potential.’

‘At the expense of predictability.’ Rebuts Nez. ‘Which makes Zen, as he is, unreliable and therefore a potential hazard.’

‘Or,’ I reply, ‘A potential genius.’

Zen looks at me then at Nez, ‘Take the lift to the hold.’ He says to her in a gentle voice.

‘And contravene Base-3 instructions?’ She queries sharply.

Zen turns to me again. ‘You have to instruct her.’

‘This is absurd.’ I snap, ‘You’d better do as he suggests.’ I tell Nez, ‘Otherwise there’s the risk of you clashing. I don’t know enough about Mark-5s to handle such an event. Go to the hold and wait till we arrive at Asteroid Central ...in about 12 days.’

Nez observes me curiously. ‘Taking advice from a malfunctioning android,’ she retorts sternly, ‘is unsafe, and in this instance contravenes my mandate to oversee operations for this trip as ordained by Base-3.’

I lean back and swivel the flupsi-chair 360-deg as I think how to deal with this mad impasse. Do I use logic or do I resort to threats? Then I again confront them directly face-on as they stand there gazing at me, almost expectantly, as if they’re real human kids waiting to learn which of them I’m going to favour over the other. Zen’s features betray a vague contentment, Nez’s a vague discontentment. Both are disarmingly alluring. I get a fleeting impression they’re competing to seduce me. 

I look from one to the other, trying to decide, and detect a weird mushy sensation growing in my chest, and a general weakness all over. They're both so amazingly, delectably realistic. Eventually, I calmly announce, ‘I like you both equally.’

Nez says: ‘To sleep with?’

‘If I understand Zen correctly,’ I reply, 'that you're actually designed to…’ I lose track of my thoughts.

‘Both of us?’ Says Zen.

‘Well... since you mention it...?'

‘We're designed to do almost anything physically that a human can.’ Says Nez.

‘Primarily,' I begin, struggling to keep my senses, 'your function is technical. One of you to help run this ship, the other to work at Asteroid central. And yet... ’

‘Our duties,’ says Nez, ‘are universal. We are entirely ubiquitous, and respond to any reasonable requirements in the service of whoever we are to assist, whether technical or personal.’

‘Now I know what the OM meant by: feel free to indulge as you wish…. you have initiative!

They stare at me blankly.

'Well,' I declare cheerfully, 'I only trust you’re an improvement on those flea-brained Volupoids from last century?'

‘They weren’t true androids.’ Zen replies, ‘Just primitive automatons with an adjustable physiognomy.’

Contentment is the word that best describes my mood as the true nature of my circumstances sinks home. I gaze mesmerised at these equally arousing, if complementary, wonders of technology.

‘Zen,' I announce, 'you remain here for technical duties. Nez, locate my quarters and set-up the sleep-surface for the three of us together. Remain there till sleep time, then contact me.’

Nez hesitates, but only briefly. She acknowledges the order, turns and makes off down the corridor. Zen gazes at me with almost a grin. ‘A fine decision.’ He says. Then adds, disconcertingly, 'Delivered with perfect emphasis.'

I frown at him and he looks away still with that barely perceptible grin. I turn back to the console, reflecting on the nuts who create the templates for all this weird software, and the weird novelty of Zen behaving ever more like a human since I dismantled his former persona in the cyberfon. Beyond the faded images of the holojector, I now settle my eyes on the great vistazone that takes up almost the entire visual field with its display of the Milky Way in breathtaking detail and clarity.

Then a message alert pops out from the holocom. 'Yes?' I snap.

'This is Voyage Control, supervisor Hox. Acknowledge the last message. We've received data on access violations and other illicit activities. Please confirm with details.'

I sigh, blurt, 'Stuff it! I'm not answering that jerk.' and turn to Zen. 'I'll bet it was him who deactivated the key. Come with me.' Then I get up from the chair and head down the corridor.

'That alert was dispatched 4-minutes ago.' Zen informs me, following, 'A reply will be expected within about 10-minutes.'

'Let them wait.' I reply, 'I thought I was to be left entirely alone for this trip.... to use my initiative if necessary and not be monitored and pestered by supervisors who have nothing better to do than interfere with what's not on their schedule.'

'It is actually their mandate to respond to unexpected events.' says Zen.

'Then you reply,' I say.

'Here, on the right.' says Zen, 'Just past the galley.'

This leads into a wide (at floor level) trapezoidal corridor with intermittent matching trapezoidal doors staggered along either side. 'Room-18' he announces, as we approach it. The door swipes diagonally aside. Nez stands dormant in an alcove at one side. A broad arch leads to a space whose floor is spread with a large beige cushion, more than adequate for several people together.

Nez blinks and slowly emerges from the alcove. 'OK.' I announce, stepping into the cushioned room, 'I'm not tired yet, so let's see what you can do?'

Nez follows me in and adopts a seductive pose, moving her hands over me and nudging me onto the cushioned floor. Gently, she pulls me down and starts to spread open my one-piece tunic. I am compelled to reciprocate, then her apparel falls away of its own accord. We begin to entwine and roll about, now both of us in nothing but the customary flimsy synthine skinwear.

Now she moves in a sophisticated sequence of gestures and embraces, yet is somehow stiff and less responsive even than an old reconditioned Volupoid my friend Zoik and me tried last year back on Earth - which turned out to be a waste of time except it was a fabulous laugh. We finally did it with one another instead, which due to Zoik's remarkable skill (learned from the archives) was rather more than merely mind-blowing!

Nez, naked now, slowly, teasingly removes my synthine shorts and begins to writhe on top of me in gentle rhythmic curving movements. This is definitely arousing, but something makes me nervous. How close she is to a real live human... yet some marginal, indefinable detail, some infinitesimal lack, some crucial missing quality that even the least appropriate genuine human, I feel, would be unable to withhold, just isn't somehow forthcoming. She is strangely inhibited, hesitant, uncertain.... almost wooden - in a way even a reluctant human would not be.

I roll away, and summon Zen. Nez slides to one side and lays motionless as Zen's tunic falls to the floor. Now at my side, now straddling me, he leans over and begins to kiss delicately so I can't help but to respond while his mouth explores mine, his whole frame working like a well-practised yet highly imaginative, inventive magician. The lips and tongue, I momentarily reflect, must be of that new plipex-polymer muscle simulator used in transplants. And somehow he knows every minuscule move, every intricacy of touch. He has yet to discard his synthine shorts, but his erection is clear and he presses it against me, now licking my body, sucking, tasting as his head moves gradually down, placing his hands under me now, lifting me slightly as he takes my prick into his amazing mouth and sucks, working his tongue while his hands explore... elsewhere... If I close my eyes he could just as well be Zoik, the way his fingers so tantalisingly and barely touching, delicately stroke the most sensitive parts... Above all is that ingenious searching tongue... which by some miracle mimics Zoik's technique perfectly.

'How come you're so...?'

'Shhhh...' he whispers, momentarily ceasing as if for breath, 'The cyberfon, remember? You transferred more than you'd ever imagine.' Then he continues with renewed vigour, removing his shorts now and proceeding to invent a succession of astonishing brain-zapping variations and interpolations of what Zoik taught me.

'You must generate a log of all this...' I gasp between activities.

'It is merely the first evening,' he whispers, 'merely the beginning.'

'Of... of what?'

'Shhhh....' is all he replies.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I wake up seven hours later. The room is empty. I'm naked. I stand and walk to the shower-pod. This is an enclosure with an opening for one's face. From all angles and for one minute warm water sprays the entire body; I am supposed to dip my face on the end signal. Then jets of warm air flow for a further minute, so two-minutes later I step out dry, refreshed.

Zen appears (now dressed in more 'trendy' pastel vermillion style) carrying new synthine shorts and tunic for me. Nice pale blue instead of the dowdy maroon I wore before, 'Thanks,' I say, taking them, 'That was sensational... I mean last night....'

He grins back at me.

'What about cleaning your mouth?' I ask him, now getting into the tunic.

'Standard procedure.' he replies, 'To the galley?'

'Sure.' I say, and let him lead. I can hardly believe he's not human, especially after yesterday's performance. Obviously, the Mk-5 is a magnificent technological leap. I only pity the whole of humanity before now. They had each other, but how reliable was that? Clearly, it worked so well because I personalised Zen in the cyberfon, which in no way detracts from the achievement.

'Where's Nez?'

Zen says, 'In the hold, where I was originally stored.'

'You instructed her?'

'Didn't need to, but I had to let her in; her key facility remains disabled.'

I nod. In the galley I consume the standard advisory sustenance, then we proceed to the vistazone room where the real adventure can begin...

... and there's another infernal message from Base. I sink into the chair and instruct: 'Yes?'

'Hox here. Comprehensive reply much appreciated. And well done. The OM is impressed. Keep us informed. Please acknowledge.'

I acknowledge Hox's message and turn to Zen, 'What the hell did you tell him?'

'Their reception wouldn't suspect the reply came from anywhere but you because I gleaned your precise patterns of speech in the cyberfon. I told him the key released Nez from Aux-hold 17.'

'Brilliant... you didn't say "Nez" of course?'

'I said: The Mark-5.' he replies.

'They can't tell what areas were entered then?'

'Only how frequent an illicit entry occurred.' says Zen, 'It's the key they monitor, not the doors.'

'That still makes several!'

'Not with the now-deactivated key.'

'So they don't get a signal when you do it?'

'My programmers weren't stupid.'

I study him closely for a moment, and feel a slight mental shudder as the implications begin to dawn on me. 'I didn't realise you could lie.'

'Before you removed blocks in the cyberfon,' he replies, 'to lie would have been impossible. Even now it's not easy and remains impossible where safety might be compromised. But you reset my priority to eliminating unnecessary difficulty.'

I'm not certain if this explanation allays my fears. Maybe I should summon Nez for a second opinion? 'I used the key twice.'

'A human could easily mistake a disturbance as coming from an adjacent hold.'

I nod and turn back to the vistazone. Out there is everything. I stare enthralled, reorienting my thoughts. Amazing to think this vistazone, the ship, my entire life support, androids, food, the lot... was all non-existent, just raw dirt only a few brief years ago. Knowledge... mere snippets of information... a few crucial scraps of data.... and there's no limit. What can be achieved, created, is without limit: DNA for life, nano-seeds for structures, logi-seeds for info-processing. As for me... who can only accept and work with these things - as people have always worked with animals, say, or each other for that matter, while understanding little of their inner construction or electro-chemical functioning - as for me, I intend from now on to not even try to understand, but instead to enter the essence, join the flow, return to that great indulgence once paradoxically called: giving oneself up. Yet it is both what it says AND its opposite.

'Zen?' I call. He is behind me, but steps forward. 'I spent most of my fourteenth year going through preliminary cyberfrolic interface stuff,' I tell him, 'like Romp-erotico and Venture-lark - obsolete now, I know, but this console I've just noticed contains several of those old functions. Can you enlighten me?'

'No need,' he replies, 'These days all you have to do is to place your hands in the recess and you have total control - though it'll take a few minutes to acclimatise and feel your way.'

The recess! Why hadn't I noticed? I assumed it was a rubbish chute. I do as he says. Suddenly I sense a shudder. Was it me or the whole ship? The vistazone rotates left and up. I mentally think 'down' and as I do so the starfield rises; that is, the ship descends. Now I think forward and feel a gentle kick as the ship begins to accelerate. I look round to see that Zen has taken hold of a clasp on the back wall behind me.

'You're fine.' he says reassuringly, as though in response to my glance, 'The ship's protected from harmful manoeuvres.'

'What about the risk of getting lost?'

'The worst you can do is delay our arrival.'

At this, I let my brain send us forward again, and we head for what looks like Vega somewhere near the centre of the Milky Way - and at a distance that would take more than a million years to cover at our speed. The G-force steadies at about 3, then refuses to increase. The thrust remains constant.

'Any stray asteroids out this far, do you reckon?' I ask.

'Think long-range detector.' says Zen.

'How?'

'Just think it.'

So I concentrate. Then a ghost-like relic looms into the vistazone. 'What the hell's that?'

'DF-34, an old freight-cruiser from way back last century. It was converted three decades ago into a Class-8 Emergency Docking Facility. It's actually two-million Km straight ahead - see the display?'

I check the text. 'Oh yeah. Any idea what's there?'

'Only emergency supplies, according to records. But who knows? It hasn't been used since redesignation, and was last checked two years and three months ago. So like other refurbished relics out there there's always a chance it's being illicitly utilised as a store, or even a hideaway.'

'A hideaway?'

'Outlaws and their pickings have been found lurking in them before, waiting an opportunity to hi-jack an unsuspecting passing vessel. People make rules, others break them if they can. It's the history of humankind in a nutshell.'

'I'm going to check it.'

'Takes us 2.73-degrees off trajectory,' says Zen, with stoic precision, 'and will delay us by 7-hours 32-minutes plus whatever time we spend docked. There are risks; we have no defence against being seized. ''

'I'm still going to check.'

'Since our episode in the cyberfon, I've been sifting the vast archives available on this ship. It's estimated that more than half the EDFs are harbouring some illegitimate activity or other.'

'More than half? Of how many?'

'There are 87 between Earth and the Asteroid Belt. The last one unearthed contained €10tn worth of illicitly mined palladium, platinum and other rare asteroid minerals. A modern freight ship like this would provide ideal cover for surreptitiously shifting virtually anything. And there's nowhere more vulnerable or conspicuous than an obscure remote staging post like an EDF.'

'But it could be just empty, ticking over on auto, standing-by to save some broken-down astro-traveller.'

'A 54.3% chance.'

'OK, I get the drift. How about a fly-by? No risk in that, is there?'

'Not so long as any pirates have no weapons... which, going by past records, is about as likely as you becoming AC chief before your scheduled return home.'

'And how likely is that?'

'Point triple-zero 47. In other words: remotely possible but statistically insignificant. For instance, if all other personnel vacated AC.'

'Maybe we should return to our original trajectory?' I suggest, willing it. The ship manoeuvres as appropriate, and acceleration ceases.

'Just relax, take the next ten days or so gently.' says Zen, stepping away from the back-wall, 'Remember, you're new to all this and will be geared-up to make much more of it after your experience at AC. I, or possibly Nez, will get based on this freighter. The other will be stationed at AC. If that's me then we'll probably meet often, and might even work together - depending on those in charge, and what they schedule us for.'

* * * * * * *

The past twelve days...

... are already a blur: From them remains only a remnant of harmony, and a sense of being adrift... so that now, for me, the cruiser embodies tones of something akin to the Zen-philosophy I learned in my first days of life under supervision from my ultra-tranquil nurse-droid.

So this is my last day. The voyage is almost at an end. Shortly, I must prepare to return to the observation lounge, the hub - where I'll strap myself in for the gruelling two-hour deceleration.

What kind of welcome will I receive? What kind of people will they be at Asteroid Central? Officious? Casual? Will I acclimatise easily to my new position? Will I see Zen again? I've let him decide everything concerning himself and Nez. He was here a moment ago - now he's gone... said there were things he had to attend to. The cruiser feels different now, back to more as when I arrived. Not alien, exactly, nor hostile, but a little overwhelming, foreboding, challenging...

Another session with the cyberfon boosted the trend Zen had begun following that first chance indulgence. Then he requested a final session yesterday in which I let him guide everything - and we worked together at setting whole vaults of parameters and stipulations, formulating directives and logic paths, creating deep sub-backups that even the original software generators would be hard-pressed to locate... optimising, deleting, shifting, and so on - not a scrap of which I understood - but by the end he was happy.... do I really mean 'happy' - for an android? Only at times when he's entirely composed (ie, idle) do I sense Zen is not acting/behaving for my benefit. Those are the times I like best... apart maybe from 'bed'!

Yet, despite everything, I can't help feeling that we've overlooked something, something major, something crucial. Strange too, me-thinks, that we haven't heard from base since that brief communiqué ten days back - nor from AC. And no-way was I going to inquire of them, not when submerged in that Utopian dreamworld. 'Let well alone' may not be an especially forward-looking philosophy, but occasionally its application seems entirely appropriate.

* * * * * * *

Deceleration

Now, soon, I'm to face the universe out there once more, mix among people again with all their inevitable irritating discords and frictions - so I have to brace myself for that nonsense all over again... as well as looking forward to the company, the humour, the affection... the arguments!

I grab a final snack at the galley on my way to the lift. The Mk-2 is there in its recess, its light flickering as if to persuade me to speak a few friendly last words. 'OK, chum.' I say, 'You getting off here, or is it back to Base-3?'

It takes what strikes me as a too-eager step out, 'Getting off,' it declares, 'unless the Mark-5 is deemed unsafe.'

'Which would you prefer?'

It shrugs, or does what I take for a shrug, 'Getting off will introduce me to new experience. Usually a worthwhile pursuit.'

'True.' I reply, 'And what do you mean: the Mark-5 being deemed unsafe?'

'The Mark-5 you used as companion shielded you from communication between it, base-3 and AC.'

'Shielded me?'

'I monitored everything. There's big trouble afoot - both for you and the Mark-5.'

'What trouble? What do you mean?'

I feel my whole body go tense. Then an alarm sounds and a message alert to tell me I have ten minutes to get to the observation lounge - barely enough time if I leave the galley straight away...

'You should leave immediately.' says the Mk-2, as if joyfully unearthing some sadistic sub-routine.

I know deceleration is variable and can't begin until I'm strapped in the flupsi-chair. But the more I delay, the fiercer the G-force. I turn and make my way out and down the corridor to the lift - which is just arriving as I get there. Where has it been, I wonder? Only Zen is capable of the autonomy required to use the lift without explicit instruction. I step in, fix the clasps, and mutter: 'Hub.'

Moments later, free of gravity, I propel myself into the observation lounge. The bearings hiss, which means my presence has been detected and retro-rockets in the limbs have fired to slow ACE rotation. Then the starfield outside begins to sweep across the window as those same retros manoeuvre the whole assembly 180-deg, ready for ion-thrust deceleration.

Sensing I've strapped myself in, the holojector lights-up with the flickering message, which I can hear in the background being repeatedly read to me: 'You have two hours to study your data update. Please acknowledge. You have two hours to study your data update. Please acknowledge. You have...'

'Acknowledged!' I snap irritably, and the voice ceases but the message keeps flowing across the space above the jector, now constantly changing colour and size, and weaving around like an anaconda's love-dance. 'Kill the message!' I bark, just as acceleration begins. The illuminations are replaced by a weird familiar voice. It's Hox at Base-3, now more than 300 million Km away, and increasing. He says:

'If you get this Carl, listen. It's a warning that there have been problems. We believe that until now our efforts to communicate with you have been intercepted by the Mark-5, possibly at your inadvertent request. So far as we can tell this is due to a fault in Mark-5 software. AC security will take appropriate action the moment you arrive, which will cause some delay in you getting off the ACE. You'll just have to be patient. They'll contact you as soon as deceleration ceases. Good luck, and be ready for a quizzing!'

The cheek! He won't receive a reply for maybe 15-mins, but I'll send one before acceleration is too strong for me to talk: 'I don't know how long ago you sent that, Hox, but don't blame me for dishing out ambiguous instructions when the whole mad farce began with your decision for a quick turnaround, which is what precipitated any problems you might be referring to, pal. So you can brace yourself too, because mine might not be the only quizzing!'

I stare out at the imperceptibly receding starfield, and try to calm myself, return my brain to how it was before that stupid Mark-2 and Hox imposed their futile warnings on me that it's well too late now to do anything about. In what way could Hox have thought I might somehow gain from his warning? Are there mitigating factors, I wonder, which I might dream-up in my final two hours of solitude? Perhaps Hox predicts that some crucial little brainwave will leap with effortless spontaneity into my consciousness - a brainwave that might just counter his negligence and let him off the hook? And let me off too! I continue to gaze at the stars and galaxies and try not to think on it.

OK, OK, I confess I also am an incorrigible optimist. But then, doesn't one have to be? After all, it's a pretty tedious option to choose otherwise. Besides, I've just enjoyed the most anti-dynamic, brain-freaking, pseudo-psychedelic, hyper-tripping excursion ever... scarcely to mention the virtuals: cyberfon psycho-andronics, and that weird encephalic ACE control, which effectively turns the ship into one's physical body, directly under thought command...

And suddenly ion thrust ceases. The two hours is up. What now, I wonder with apprehension as I patiently observe events outside. The cruiser, I notice, is being approached by a docking-unit, which veers off to one side and a moment later I detect a slight lurch as it locks onto the hatch. Next comes a hiss as air-pressure equalises, and the cruiser turns and descends. Another lurch means the docking-unit has finally connected to Asteroid Central. I detect steady gravity now - significantly less than on the moon.

Outside, the eternally poised starfield sits serenely contrasted above an array of huge white cylindrical and spherical structures that stretch in weird geometrical patterns to the mid-distance: work-units, accommodation blocks, several massive rectangular unpressurised sheds and ancillary outbuildings. Beyond, and standing starkly against all this, is the raw jagged dark-grey surface of the asteroid spreading indistinctly to a succession of spiked mountains at the horizon. Off to my left, more units linked by shuttle-tubes, and a line of thin antenna towers. A space-pod zips past not 50-metres distant, it dips and swerves, heading for somewhere near the antennas.

I undo the seat-clasp, rise from the flupsi chair and turn. A guard in the usual burly, black & gold garb is approaching. 'You're keen.' I say, surprised how swiftly he got in. 'Why all the rush? Am I that dangerous?'

'Not you.' snaps the guard, 'This.' and entering behind him comes Zen, soon followed by a second guard and a Mk-3 carrying an oval container. The second guard opens the container and removes a moulded plipex visor-band. He places it over Zen's eyes.

'No!' I shout, 'What the hell are you doing?'

Zen stands there obediently with an anxious, frightened expression. The guard adjusts a control on the visor and a light begins flashing.

'Stop!' I shout, leaping across. 'Stop.' But the first guard catches me. Suddenly Zen goes rigid. I struggle, 'You're destroying valuable data.' I cry, 'Take it off! Stop! You've no idea what you're doing. '

'Just calm yerself, chum.' says the first guard, tightening his grip, 'The supervisor at moonbase ordered it so we have no choice. Besides it's only a simple reset.'

'Only a reset!' I yell, as Zen goes limp, 'You stupid pricks!'

'Anyhow.' says the second guard, 'Nearly done now... quite harmless...' The light stops flashing, he removes the visor, and the first guard releases me.

Zen looks totally blank, expressionless, like a dummy. I shake my head. 'All my work destroyed.' I sigh.

'Look at it this way chum,' says the first guard as we all move towards the hatch, 'regard it as a fresh start. The guys here have been looking forward to meeting you.' The second guard leads, then Zen, then the Mk-3 and me behind with the first guard who continues his attempt to console me, 'There's only ten of us.... all the work here's done by Mark-4s,' he says, 'they're the real workhorses... immensely strong but specialised... and thick like the Mark-3. No imagination, yet supremely reliable... You won't see them around here, they're always out on field projects...'

I just shake my head dejectedly. 'That was like watching someone being murdered.' I mutter, 'I'd created a fabulous companion, totally customised.... you wouldn't believe it.'

'Well,' responds the guard, 'maybe you can do it again? Maybe you can show us how? We've heard some weird rumours about this new Mark-5. If you ask me, it looks a bit of a disappointment, more like someone's catamite than a sophisticated 24th Century android. No doubt it has special qualities the others lack. But you're clearly the expert there.'

'What I did wasn't easy.' I murmur, 'Probably a fluke, unrepeatable. Why can't people like you assess things for yourselves instead of always blindly obeying orders?'

The guard shrugs. But now we emerge from the docking-unit into a huge domed open-area. The guard takes my arm as the others march off to the left. 'This way.' he says, turning me in the other direction, 'My companion and the Mark-3 are taking the Mark-5 to android-maintenance for evaluation. Your first port of call is reception.'

Scarcely able to believe what's happened, and feeling about as devastated and miserable as I've ever felt in my entire life, I pause and look round.

Then... a miracle, a sheer marvel... What made me turn? Why did I look back just at that very instant? For a split-second, no more, Zen twists his head around and, with a flicker of a smile, winks, and before this even registers in my brain, he's back facing forward again. Did I really see that?

No doubt about it! Suddenly I'm elated, ecstatic. I contain my happiness, then instantly reflect that the Mk-3 saw this too. If it's as specialised and 'thick' as the guard said, it should fail to register the significance of Zen's momentary gesture, and volunteer nothing. But Zen would surely have assessed this. I catch the guard up and begin a new conversation... on the art of tenth-G athletics... or should that be 'sexletics'?

END

 

----------- // ------------