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Marriage Guidance - A Science Fiction Story

People seem to take technology for granted and pay it no attention except when they need to use it. I suppose it wouldn't make sense to worry about the toaster overhearing your conversation, for instance, but in these days of neural links and intelligent software its sensible to at least be conscious of your environment if a conversation is private. It therefore surprises me when everybody on the ship acts as if I'm invisible even when I'm sitting on the table next to them in the cafeteria. Unless I speak directly to them they treat me like a toaster and ignore me.

As a nuh-man, with a robotic body, I can accept the logic that leads humans to view me as simply an object. With my unique brain, created from my parents eDNA in a software analogue of procreation, I also possess feelings so being ignored tends to piss me off. Its just the way things are; I tell myself that attitudes will change given enough time. The Captain for one doesn't seem to hold the same prejudice. He just thinks I'm a spoiled rich kid. He told me so in no uncertain terms when we met three weeks into the flight.

“Ninety four people on the Caelus,” he had told me. “Ninety four people.” He had stabbed a finger at me. “Only one of them has no role or function onboard. You. A passenger. A tourist.” He had smiled then. “A leaper.”

“Yes, Captain.” That's another prejudice I don't really understand. Leapers take their name from the famous 'giant leap for mankind' speech of Neil Armstrong. Their only purpose is to be the first to set foot on new ground. To be the first to climb a mountain, cross an ocean, reach the pole. All the firsts on Earth have been and gone so leapers have set off to find other worlds with new challenges. I suppose the thing that bothers people is that to be a leaper one needs an awful lot of money.

“And another thing,” he had said, “I am responsible for the safety of all ninety four of those people. Including you.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Stop agreeing with me. I'm not happy about having you along, Ulysses. I don't care what connections you have back home. I care about this mission and I care about bringing everybody back in one piece. And that includes you.” He had sighed then and rubbed his hand over his forehead. “On this ship I am God, don't forget that. Please disregard anything you were told before you boarded. I happen to think your idea to climb a mountain on Iapetus borders on suicidal and I may not allow it.”

“Captain, I …”

A gesture to silence me. “When we reach Saturn I'll make a decision. That will be all, Ulysses.”

That was six weeks ago and I had spent most of the time since then sitting in the cafeteria. Being ignored. I did wander around the ship and had spoken to some of the crew and mission scientists but, as the Captain said, I didn't really have any role or function onboard and they all knew it. I always seemed to find myself back in the cafeteria. It was in the centrifugal section of the Caelus and produced a constant three-quarter-gee so was popular with everybody. People wandered in at all hours of the shipboard day and night, either due to their shift patterns or from sleep disturbance.

Gravity, or the lack of it, doesn't bother me and I don't need food or drink (although I do like to sample delicacies occasionally) but being in the cafeteria seemed like the sociable thing to do. After weeks onboard with no actual jobs to do I was starting to get a little bored. I do value time with my own thoughts, but I also value an opportunity to share my ideas with others and I hadn't managed to make any friends among the crew. I like to read as well, which has the bonus of passing some time, so will often sit immobile whilst internally flicking through a virtual book.

One night I was reading Burton's Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah in the cafeteria and I didn't initially notice the occupants on the table beside me. The Victorian adventurer's account of his travels was a fascinating insight into attitudes in the 19th century and of his successful attempt to disguise himself as a Muslim pilgrim so he could gain access to the Holy City of Mecca. I did find his use of language difficult to follow at times so had to draw my focus back into reality occasionally to digest the passage I had just read. My eyes flickered and the cafeteria resolved itself in my vision. I was motionless and stared straight along the curved floor with its neatly spaced tables and chairs, then the sound of nearby voices intruded.

“… bloody infuriating.”

“What am I supposed to do? I love him.” A quick facial scan and ShipWeb identified the speaker as Camille Briggs, Engineer Second Class.

“Is love enough to change anything?” asked Suri Itou, also an Engineer according to my display.

“I'm not saying that,” said Briggs, “and he is totally obsessed with his work. Bores me to death talking about it. Sometimes I look at him when he's ranting on about the possibility of extraterrestrial life and I just want to punch him in the face.”

Itou laughed. “That won't do. What else is good about your relationship? The sex?”

“The sex is great,” replied Briggs, “and the zero-g adds another dimension. Not that he's interested very often. If I was an alien he'd probably give me some attention. All he cares about is his work and the mission.”

“You knew what he did when you married him.”

“I knew he was a biologist,” she said, “but this extraterrestrial nonsense infuriates me.”

“All I'm saying is you are married and you spend a lot of time together. You need to make things work for now. Don't forget we have a long time left on this trip.”

“You're right. I'll try, but if it doesn't work I'll end it with him even if we aren't back home. I'm not afraid of divorce; it's only a word.” Briggs looked at her watch. “I'm due on shift in five minutes. Catch you later.” She stood up and walked out of the cafeteria. Itou finished her drink and followed a few minutes later. Neither of them gave me a second glance.

So, marriage problems. Not exactly my strong point. My brain may be a human-analogue, but I've never understood the complexities of relationships, especially of couples. I do find it an interesting situation though. I mean, there can't be a worse place to have a relationship difficulty than on a spaceship millions of miles from Earth. I decided that I should at least try to get to know the couple to see if I could do anything to help. It would help to pass the time at least and might relieve some of the monotony of the trip. And I couldn't make things any worse, I thought.

ShipWeb helpfully informed me that Camille was married to Abel Briggs, astrobiologist. I decided to start on my little project by paying him a visit in the morning.

The astrobiology lab was compact and clinical with no test tubes or microscopes in sight; just some desks with computer terminals. There were three scientists tapping away when I floated through the door. I am able to adhere to the floor and walk normally in the micro-gravity sections of the ship, but I'd discovered that this annoyed the human crew who were forced to float, shuffle or pull themselves along. I didn't need to give anybody more reasons to dislike me so I emulated them as best I could.

Abel Briggs was tethered to a desk on the wall/floor directly in front of the door to the lab as I floated in. I grabbed a guiding rope and pulled myself over. “Hello.”

Briggs turned his head slightly and smiled quizzically. “Hi.”

“I'm Ulysses,” I said.

“Yes, I know. The nuh-man. How can I help you?”

“I was hoping I could help you.”

“Oh?”

I don't have the luxury of facial expressions so I spread my alloy-fingered hand imploringly. “You know I don't have any role on this mission,” I explained.

He nodded.

“But I do have a degree in Geology and a Masters in Marine Biology.” I shrugged at his confused expression. “What can I tell you? I've studied a few different subjects which interest me; I have a couple more up my sleeve. The point is this: I am able and willing to help you with your work. I'm not an astrobiologist, but I have skills that would complement you in your work. And it will give me something to do on this monotonous trip.”

“You want to help me?” He seemed genuinely surprised.

“Yes.”

Briggs smiled. “Alright then.”

Camille Briggs is an attractive woman, I decided, but she doesn't smile often enough. She didn't seem to like me from the first moment Abel introduced us and seemed to doubt my interest in his work. She was partly correct, of course, because I did have an ulterior motive in getting close to them both as part of my naive plan to help their marriage. She was wrong about his work though, because I found it fascinating.

The astrobiology department on the Caelus was divided into a number of study areas with a primary emphasis on Titan. There was even some focus on Saturn itself, with the continued hope that Sagan's hypothetical 'floating gas bags' might exist in its atmosphere.

Abel was the only astrobiologist onboard working on the satellite Enceladus. To be fair, there were only seven astrobiologists on the Caelus and the Saturnian system is big, and 70 light-minutes away on Earth there were dozens of scientists following Abel's work closely. The Earthbound observers sent regular suggestions, theories, and occasionally direct instructions to him. But he was the only one on the ship focused on Enceladus, and I liked that.

“Look at this telemetry,” he said, laying his datapad in front of me. “We're getting so close now.” He touched the screen and spread his fingers to zoom in on the latest image. “See the tiger stripe here? You can see the ice slush in the fissures.” He grinned and suddenly slapped me on the shoulder. “It's going to work. I know it is. Laser ranging reads the ice depth at less than five metres. Incredible.”

I wish I could smile. Or grin. My face has no expression unfortunately, except for my eyes, but I had decided to do something about that as soon as I returned to Earth with some additional prostheses. I found his enthusiasm infectious and uplifting.

“It's marvellous,” I said.

“Yes. Yes it is.”

As the ship got closer to Saturn the forward-facing sensor array was recording detailed information about Enceladus. The latest data had confirmed that its sub-surface ocean was within easy reach of our lander. That ocean was the most likely place in the solar system to locate extraterrestrial life for the first time, despite what the other scientists might believe about Titan. At least, that was Abel's belief.

“Can't you talk about anything else?” demanded Camille. “All I hear about is your work.”

“Sorry, darling,” he replied. “I'm just excited, that's all. We'll talk about something else.” He stood up from the table. “I'll get us all a drink and you can tell us about your day.”

Camille leaned towards me as soon as Abel was out of earshot. “I thought you were a mountaineer. Why the interest in a submarine probe?”

“I'm an explorer,” I replied. “Mountains, oceans, deserts, snow, ice; they are all the same to me. What could be better than exploring an ocean on another world? Besides, the Captain doesn't like the idea of me risking my life on Iapetus.”

She sneered. “It's such a shame that the Captain has more respect for your life than you do.”

“I don't have a death wish if that's what you're thinking. I value my life greatly, but a life without challenge or adventure is no existence at all. In my opinion.”

Abel came back to the table with some drinks. “What are we talking about?”

I picked up a drink and ingested a small amount to be polite. “Camille thinks I'm foolhardy.”

She shook her head. “Camille thinks that life is too precious to risk climbing a pointless mountain.”

“Hear, hear,” agreed Abel.

“Ok,” I said, lifting my hands with palms forward. “I give up. At least you both think I am alive, which is more than I can say about some of the crew.”

“Of course,” said Abel, “you're just like us.”

“Without a soul,” added Camille.

“Camille!”

“I'm sorry, but that's how I feel,” she said. “Ulysses, I do accept that you are a conscious, thinking being. I also believe that humans are more than just a biological machine. I think we have a soul and so, as a machine, you don't.”

“I understand your beliefs, Camille,” I said, “and I'm not offended. Naturally, I don't agree with you.”

She smiled. “I didn't expect you would. It's like Abel with his misguided belief in extraterrestrial life.”

“Oh, come on, Camille,” said Abel. “You know that microbial life has already been confirmed on Mars. Extraterrestrial life does exist. It has already been proven.”

“But can you say with certainty that life wasn't transplanted from Earth via meteorite collision? That it may have evolved on Mars from a common terrestrial ancestor?” she asked. “The answer is 'No' and you know it. You say it is a certainty when you know that to be untrue.”

“The theory of panspermia?” Abel pursed his lips. “There is no certainty, no, but the statistical evidence says differently. And if we find life on Enceladus then …”

“When we find life,” I added.

“Statistical evidence,” snarled Camille. “You're both idiots.” She stood up abruptly and strode purposefully from the cafeteria.

“I'm sorry, Ulysses,” said Abel, “I think she's a little stressed with things lately. You know, the mission.” He shrugged. “She doesn't mean anything by it. I'm sure she doesn't mean to offend you or me. Seriously.”

“I'm not offended,” I said. “She doesn't seem to like the idea of extraterrestrial life, does she?”

“She is a little conflicted. Comes from a religious upbringing, I suppose.”

“What do you mean?”

“God created mankind,” explained Abel. “If there is life elsewhere, especially intelligent life, then it calls into question the special relationship we as humans share with God. It could also mean that there is nothing unique about life on Earth and that would question whether there is even a God at all.”

“I hadn't thought it through, but it does make sense. I haven't really studied religion much, except Buddhism, and I don't know what to think about a Divine Creator.”

“Camille is a Christian. It's part of her makeup. Deep down I don't think she has an issue with life evolving off Earth.” He laughed. “She just doesn't want us to find an intelligent dolphin on Enceladus.”

I chuckled. “You never know?” I said. “I'm hoping to find the sunken city of Atlantis.”

Abel smiled and took a sip of his drink. “Another few weeks and we'll know if there is anything down there.”

“I'll drink to that,” I said. “Seriously, though, you do need to talk to Camille. And not about your work.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think she needs you to take an interest in her for a change. To be a husband instead of a scientist.”

Abel nodded. “I have been neglecting her a little recently. I'll try and make amends.” He rose from the table and picked up his datapad. “Now is as good a time as any. See you at work tomorrow.”

“See you, Abel.”

The payload hangar is off-limits during the flight to avoid any contamination from the crew. Prior to launch of the dozens of probes and landers spacesuited technicians would sterilise them again to ensure no micro-organisms were introduced accidentally into the Saturnian system.

The hangar can be viewed through various ports and I sometimes made the trip to gaze at the Enceladus submersible. It was an impressive machine: seven metres long with sleek silver lines hiding an array of sensors, lights and cameras. As we drew ever closer to Saturn I was becoming more excited about the prospect of sitting alongside Abel as the probe searched the ocean depths of Enceladus. My vague plan to help fix the Briggs' marriage had lost any meaning or interest for me. In my mind, it was a happy coincidence overhearing the conversation that had led me to meet Abel. Fate maybe. It had given me a purpose greater than taking a 'giant leap' to climb a mountain on Iapetus.

Getting to the hangar viewports involved a convoluted route through narrow connecting passageways, some of which were no more than crawl spaces. I was making my way back through the maze one afternoon when I met Camille floating towards me.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hello.” She seemed surprised to see me.

“I've just been to look at the sub again,” I explained. “Are you heading there?”

“Of course not. Why would I want to see a stupid probe?” I noticed sweat on her brow and she seemed nonplussed. “I have better things to do with my time.”

“Just making conversation,” I said. “See you later.”

She didn't reply but stared at me as I left. I gave some thought to the encounter later that night during my downtime. Why had Camille been in that part of the ship if not to view the probe? I wondered. The nuclear fusion drives which she helped maintain were at the other end of the ship. I concluded that the easiest thing to do would be to ask her. In the morning.

After a dreamless sleep I rose early and went in search of Camille. Dreaming is one of the reasons I need to sleep, it helps keep my human-analogue brain functioning smoothly, so a night with no dreams feels like wasted time to me.

ShipWeb informed me that Camille was on duty so I headed down towards the engine control area of the ship. The engines were inaccessible, of course, being far back from the inhabited areas of the ship. They also weren't firing at this time in the journey, though they would soon be used in a deceleration manoeuvre to bring Caelus into a stable orbit around Saturn.

Camille would be working in the engine maintenance area of the ship. Access to the rear of the ship was difficult as there were no corridors, just pipeways, and a cavernous divide to separate the living quarters from the engines supported by interlocking struts.

The engine maintenance areas were even more cramped and convoluted than the hangar bay with its narrow intersecting tubes. I pulled through one pipelike corridor into a slightly larger bay with two pipe exits and an external airlock. Signs above each pipe referenced their locations and I pulled up a map of the ship to try to navigate to the engineers work area. Through the transparent HUD I noticed the pipe exit in front of me seal shut suddenly. I glanced round at the other two pipes which were also closing. The inner airlock door hissed open.

“What the…?”

I barely had time to think that this couldn't happen. There are so many failsafes built into airlocks that they simply cannot be opened remotely. And the outer door absolutely cannot be opened while the inner door is open.

The outer door opened.

The rapid outrushing of air lifted me from my feet and threatened to eject me into space, but I instinctively lashed out an arm and dug my alloy fingers into the deck grille. A storage container slammed into my shoulder and was carried through the airlock. I quickly lowered the protective covers over my eyes which, as my only biological component, would be badly damaged by vacuum.

It lasted only a few seconds and the air was gone. I sent an emergency signal over ShipWeb and waited for help to arrive. A few minutes later the airlock doors both closed and the pipe exits opened. There was another brief inrush of air down the pipes into the small bay and everything was back to normal. As if nothing had happened.

“How's your shoulder?”

“Sore,” I said, then felt I needed to explain further. “The impact of the storage container compressed some optic wiring; it translates to a pain response.”

“Yes, well, the doctor tells me that you'll be fine. You might need some attention from a robotech when we get home.” The Captain glared at me across his desk. “There is no record in ShipWeb that the airlock was opened.”

“It did happen,” I said.

He nodded. “I know.” He tapped the datapad in front of him. “There is a lot of evidence apart from the actual airlock log. What concerns me, Ulysses, is not only did someone override the systems to open the airlock, which is a bloody hard thing to do, but they also tried to cover it up by altering ShipWeb. Which leads me to the concerning conclusion that it was a deliberate attempt to kill you.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“So do you mind telling me why somebody wants you dead?”

“I have no idea, Captain.”

“You've been spending a lot of time with Abel Briggs. What's the story with that?”

“Just trying to keep busy. The submarine project interests me.” I shrugged. “I don't think there's a connection with the science mission. Perhaps it was somebody who doesn't like nuh-mans. There is still a lot of prejudice against us and I'm the only one on the ship.”

“No,” said the Captain. “Everybody on this trip is highly trained and all of them have been handpicked. No way the psychological profiling missed a homicidal prejudice against artificial humans. There has to be more to it than that. Whoever wants you dead must have a very good reason.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“You're taking this very calmly.”

“I don't think being hysterical about it will help,” I replied, “but I am concerned. Naturally, I don't want to be killed and, despite what you think about the profiling of the crew, at least one of them has enough homicidal tendencies to want me dead.”

The Captain stared into space whilst stroking his cheek, thinking. I waited patiently, but my mind was in overdrive. Could it be something to do with the Briggs'? They were the only people on board I had contact with, but I failed to see any motive. It still seemed likely to me to be a nuh-man issue.

“This is what we are going to do,” the Captain said, finally. “Firstly, you are not to travel around the ship alone. ShipWeb will track your every move. And yes, I know it was compromised already, but I have command protocols which should alert me if anyone attempts that again. In the meantime, I've sent a message to Earth for instructions. It's worth noting that the Acmon is already in orbit around Saturn and the Tartarus is only two or three months behind us. I'm suggesting at the earliest opportunity you move to one of those ships.”

“What about my work?”

“It isn't your work, Ulysses,” snapped the Captain. “Look, this is a science mission. We aren't equipped to solve crimes, because there aren't supposed to be any. And what do we get as our first misdemeanour? Graffiti? Petty theft? No, attempted murder.”

“I'm sorry, Captain,” I said, “I don't want this situation any more than you do.”

“Ulysses, please understand. I do not have a police force or any security onboard. There are crew members who can assume these roles if required, but in the circumstances I don't know if they can be trusted.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Help Briggs if it makes you happy, but stay visible. No more solo exploring.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“And I've had an extra cot put into my cabin. You'll be sharing with me for the remainder of the trip.”

I hadn't expected that. “Yes, Captain,” I agreed. “Thank you.”

“That will be all, Ulysses.”

I was no longer invisible to the crew. They all now stared at me whenever I passed them or entered a room. Often, two or more crew members would have a whispered discussion when I came into view. I didn't hear any more conversations in the cafeteria because nobody spoke when I came within earshot. Occasionally a crew member would speak to me, but only to exchange meaningless pleasantries. To be polite. Abel Briggs was the exception.

Abel had difficulty accepting that somebody on board wanted me dead, but he did spend more time with me to be supportive. I thought about him spending this time away from Camille and I worried that it would impact on their marriage, but I didn't really care anymore. I liked having him around and it did make me feel more secure.

We began talking more about each other than about the mission. Abel told me about his childhood and I told him about my adventures. I was surprised to learn that science had not been his lifelong passion.

“I wanted to be a fighter pilot as a child,” he told me.

“What happened?”

“The usual. Family,” he said. “My sister, Siobhan, beat me to it. As a pilot, that is. She got a commercial license to fly scramjets for HyperAir. She loved it. Fastest way to travel: New York to Tokyo in four-and-a-half hours.” He sighed. “She was co-pilot on Flight 273. It broke apart in the upper atmosphere back in '82. Plasma leak probably. Those scramjet engines get pretty damn hot.” A rueful laugh. “I decided against flying as a career after that. It didn't seem right somehow.”

“That's awful. I'm so sorry.”

“I'm more suited to this line of work,” he said. “Perhaps it was fate. I'm a firm believer in a personal destiny. Anyway, what about your family? I keep meaning to ask why you don't use a surname.”

“Mmm.” I looked down at the table.

“Sorry. I don't mean to pry.”

“No, that's fine,” I said. “My surname is Ram. As in Marcus Ram.”

“Oh.” Marcus Ram had been the fifth richest person on Earth before he left on the interstellar arkship New Hope. Everybody has heard of him. He was also one of the founders of the 'Giant Leap' organisation and had made the first ascent of Olympos Mons on Mars. The Ram family industrial complex continued to invest heavily in private space exploration and tourism. It also provided me with a very sizeable annual allowance. “Your father?” he asked.

“Sort of,” I replied. “I tend to refer to him as grandfather, though I guess uncle would be appropriate as well. Before Marcus left on the New Hope he had a brain cloning scan made. His electronic version, his virtual copy, decided that he wasn't Marcus. He believes he became a separate entity at the moment of his creation, or a second later. He changed his name to Hermes. He is my father. He has a virtual existence on a supercomputer under a Swiss mountain.”

“So you…”

“Dad has a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Some real, some virtual. My mother is another virtual brain copy. They met, fell in love. Virtually, I guess. They decided to mix a software amalgam of both of their electronic DNA to create a child. So, here I am.”

“Wow,” said Briggs. “Ulysses Ram.”

I laughed. “Yep. You can understand why I don't advertise the fact.”

He nodded. “The thing I don't understand is why aren't you living a virtual existence in a Swiss supercomputer?”

“It just never seemed right to me. I like interacting with the physical. The real world. Virtual reality does nothing for me because I know that it's fake. You never know what you'll find when you explore real places. So I downloaded myself into this body and I've been wandering around the solar system ever since.”

“No copies.”

“Nope. It's all in here,” I said, pointing to my temple. “I'm as vulnerable to death as you are.”

Abel frowned. “Not quite,” he said. “I've just realised that if you had been ejected into space it wouldn't actually kill you.”

“Well, no, but it wouldn't be a picnic.” I thought about the consequences. “I'm not really able to withstand vacuum for long without an exoskin suit, but I could have switched to hibernation mode and relied on memristors to keep my brain backed up. That would give me a few months without additional power. I would just be drifting though and would die eventually.”

“But you could have been picked up by the Tartarus in the meantime.”

“Maybe.” I shrugged. It was the only humanlike gesture I had mastered. “Are you suggesting it wasn't attempted murder?”

“I'm trying to think of a motive. Isn't it easier to believe that somebody simply wanted you out of the way?”

“Yes, but why? I'm not involved in anything onboard except for the Enceladus project.”

“Perhaps that is where we should start.”

Abel and I exchanged ideas and speculations about possible motives linked to the Enceladus project over the next few days, but failed to come up with any plausible reasons for someone wanting me dead or even 'out of the way'. I decided not to share my reasons for being in that section of the ship in the first place because I was still not willing to discuss my interest in his marriage. To be fair, I had lost interest in trying to help Abel in anything but his work. If he was having relationship difficulties he didn't share the details with me, and I no longer let it concern me. Camille rarely spent any time with me and I didn't seek her out.

Sharing a cabin with the Captain did make me feel more secure, but his heavy snoring made it difficult to fall asleep most nights. I would lie in my bed staring at the ceiling and imagined shadowy enemies stalking me through the corridors of the ship. The sleep I managed was often shallow and unfulfilling and I spent most of my waking hours feeling sluggish and weary.

With only three nights remaining until the Caelus reached Saturn orbit I fell into a restless but dream-filled sleep. In my dream I rode the Enceladus submarine into the ocean depths. I merged with the submarine until I became the probe and my eyes became its sensors and cameras. My powerful lights probed the depths and reached out for elusive creatures which remained just beyond reach in the gloom but whose presence I could feel. I reached out my robotic arms and stretched into the darkness. At the extreme edge of vision my fingers looked like shadowy slivers of black in contrast to the blue alloy of my forearms caught in the beam of the probe lights. I awoke suddenly.

Colour. Something about shades of light and dark. Something about the Enceladus probe.

“What are you looking for?” asked Abel.

I pointed at the screen and pulled up a spectral analysis of the Enceladus probe. “This section here is a different colour to the surrounding metal. The grain of the paint application is also different; it has been applied along a different plane.”

“A different plane?”

“Yes,” I explained, “the grain of the paint across the submarine has been applied along a linear x-x axis, probably by a robot. This section here had the paint applied at 0.2 degrees off that axis. That's how I spotted it.”

“Spotted what? What does it mean?”

“That section has been added after the rest of the probe was constructed. It's the only explanation.”

Abel ran one hand through his hair while he used the other to hold onto the arm of my chair. “Tell me again how you noticed this.” He sounded angry.

“Have I upset you?”

He waved his arm at the screen. “This has upset me. The suggestion that somebody has done something to the probe has upset me. I don't understand what's going on.”

“I'm sorry.”

“I'm not really angry with you, Ulysses,” he said, “but how did you spot it?”

“I have hyperacuity,” I explained. “I noticed a colour difference on the probe's surface but thought it was just the light in the hangar. Perhaps a shadow. I mean, I couldn't get a close-up look at it. I must have noted the discrepancy in my subconscious and it came to the surface in my dream. As soon as I woke up I put it all together and came here.”

“Ok.” He walked a few paces from me and turned round quickly. “Ok. Ok.” He gestured with his hands like he was trying to slow things down. Probably his racing thoughts. He came back to my side and sat in the chair next to me. “Well, we have no choice. We need to know if something has been done to the probe. We need to remove that panel and look inside.”

“I agree. Should we tell the Captain first?”

Abel shook his head. “Tell him what? We think there is a section of the probe where the paint has been applied at 0.2 degrees off the perpendicular? He'll think we're crazy. I think we're crazy. No, we need to know what is behind that panel.”

“So how do we get into the hangar bay?”

Abel slapped me on the shoulder. “Of course. That's it. You're a genius.” He applied some pressure to move me sideways. “Let me in here.” He slipped into the seat, strapped himself in to avoid drifting away, and started tapping at the keyboard.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“There is no official way to access the hangar bay during the flight,” he replied. “Even if the cameras were disabled and the entry log was amended you can't delete crew movement records. All I need to do is search for a time when there was a discrepancy in the hangar records and then check which crew were in that section of the ship at the same time.”

“How will you find a discrepancy?”

“Easy. It will be too perfect. Most lies usually are.” He kept tapping away. In less than a minute he stopped and pointed at the screen. “There you go. I told you it would be easy. This is a forty-seven minute section of camera recording with no interference, no feedback issues, and not a single change in the image. Not even a dust speck.” He turned and looked at me intently, flicking a finger towards the screen. “This section of footage has been replaced to cover up unauthorised access to the hangar bay.”

“By whom?”

“Let's find out,” he said. He tapped the keyboard again.

The name of the only crew member in that section of the ship at the time of the camera discrepancy flashed onto the screen: Camille Briggs.

The Captain listened stoically as we explained our findings. When we had finished he sat silently staring at us.

“Captain,” pleaded Abel, “it's all true. This is my wife we are talking about. She's done something to the probe.”

He held up his hand for silence and then took on a vacant glazed look in his eyes as if he was focusing on something behind us; it was obvious he was accessing ShipWeb through his neural link. He stood up abruptly.

“Let's go,” he said, “she's in the cafeteria.”

A short way down the corridor we were joined by two crew members who just fell into step behind us without saying a word. ShipWeb declined to provide their identities to my enquiry and I realised the Captain had amended all normal access with command overrides. The Captain strode ahead of us as if with a divine purpose. He flicked on his voice communicator. “Simonson, are you in position yet?”

“Almost, Captain. Thirty seconds max.”

“Roger that. Keep me updated.”

I glanced round at Abel but his face was set in an unreadable mask. It was obvious he was conflicted; he wanted to keep both the probe and his wife safe, but it seemed that he would have to choose between them. Walking down the corridor towards the cafeteria meant he had technically already made that choice, and he didn't seem happy about it. I could understand that sentiment.

“I'm ready, Captain,” came Simonson's voice.

“Good. Standby.”

The cafeteria was busy as we entered, but the Captain's grim appearance and purposeful stride sent a ripple around the room and it fell silent in seconds. The Captain walked towards the centre of the room where Camille Briggs was seated with Suri Itou. They both turned in our direction. Suddenly, Itou leapt to her feet and turned to run, but stopped as she noticed the way was blocked by other crew members.

“Itou?” I said. I hadn't expected the two of them to be in it together, but a quick glance at Camille and I realised we had been wrong all along. She looked surprised and shocked and clearly had no idea what was going on. Itou was the sole culprit. The Captain was seemed unfazed and simply switched his attention without hesitation.

Itou turned back to face us, and smiled. She lifted a datapad and started to stab at its screen.

“Now, Simonson,” yelled the Captain, “eject the probe.”

Itou stopped tapping the pad and looked at him.

“It's no use, Suri,” he said. “The probe is a hundred kilometres behind us by now. It's gone.”

She dropped the datapad onto the table. “Do you think you've won?” she asked. “There are more people like me than you will ever know. This isn't the end of our plans. You will all be judged by God in time to come.”

The Captain gestured at the two burly crew members. “Take her away.”

***

The Captain smiled as I entered his office. “Welcome,” he said. “Take a seat.”

“Thank you.”

“How are the Briggs'?”

“Trying to repair things,” I said, “she is still a little upset that we suspected her.”

“Yes, damned clever of Itou to use a false tracking chip. It meant she didn't need to alter the log at all; ShipWeb thought she was Camille and vice versa. Of course, you said that you also saw Camille near the hangar bay and that couldn't be faked.”

“Camille was curious,” I explained. “She had realised that Itou was spending time in sections of the ship which were nothing to do with her work. She had followed her down there the day I saw her. But Camille was only curious; she didn't really suspect Itou of any wrongdoing.”

“And that brings us to the crux of it,” he said. “Itou's dastardly plan.”

“With the probe gone we might never get the answer to that question. Unless she tells us herself.”

The Captain's smile became a grin. “Itou has told me everything and the probe is perfectly safe. It wasn't ejected.”

“But you told Simonson to …”

“Simonson had his instructions via ShipWeb before he disconnected the hangar bay from the network. He sealed the probe in absorbent foam, loaded it onto a remote shuttlepod and sent it on a parallel course two hundred metres away from the Caelus' hull.” The Captain opened his hands a quarter metre apart. “The altered section of the probe was only this big, so I guessed it couldn't hold an explosive device. At least not one which could cause much damage.”

“What does it contain?”

“Biological toxins.” He glanced at his datapad. “Bacteria, viruses, fungicidal agents. We don't have an exact breakdown, but there is a cornucopia of death inside.”

I sat silently. I was shocked.

“It was a surprise to me too.” He smiled again, ruefully this time. “I thought I was being smart saving the probe in a shuttlepod, but it can't be allowed back inside now. Nor can the shuttlepod. It's about to get a course adjustment to take a slingshot around Saturn and a long trip back towards the Sun. It's the only way. A long trip followed by a fiery death.”

I finally found my voice again. “Why? Did she want to kill the crew?”

“Not at all,” he explained, “she wanted to kill whatever life there might be on Enceladus.”

This was all baffling me. “I still need to ask why?”

The Captain sighed. “Itou is a Christian extremist. She did tell me the sect's name, but it doesn't really matter. They believe the usual drivel about God favouring mankind and so can't accept the idea of intelligent life arising elsewhere.”

“Abel told me something similar about Camille; not that she is an extremist, but that she has religous objections to the idea of alien life. Enceladus isn't likely to have intelligent life though, is it? It might have some extraterrestrial life, but it will probably be simple. Perhaps not even multicellular.”

“I suppose that is the worrying aspect of the whole thing,” said the Captain. “Itou says this was just a test. If they can wipe out all life on Enceladus using a mixture of biological weapons from Earth, which have evolved separately from Saturnian life, then the same principle could apply to intelligent beings from another star system.”

“She's crazy.”

The Captain nodded. “And she isn't the only one. There must be quite an organisation back on Earth to put together a package of weapons this sophisticated. But that is Earth's problem now. I've sent them the details of everything that's happened and they need to track down the culprits. I've also contacted the Tartarus to increase security around their hangar bay and rescreen the crew. We still have an imminent mission with a rapidly approaching deadline. We'll arrive at Saturn soon.”

“And then what?” I asked. “Abel has no purpose without the Enceladus probe.”

“Abel has enough to do trying to save his marriage after suspecting Camille of being a bio-terrorist. And the Tartarus will be here soon enough with additional probes for him to get his hands on. He has enough to keep him busy, believe me.”

“And Itou?”

“She will be kept securely locked up until we can ship her back home for trial.”

“And me?”

The Captain smiled again. “I have decided to let you climb your mountain on Iapetus. I think you deserve the opportunity.”

“Thank you, Captain.” I didn't bother to tell him that it was actually a ridge I wanted to climb and not a mountain.

“I decided to let you climb the mountain because you have more lives than a cat.”

“I don't understand.”

“Remember your almost-ejection into space? Itou explained it all. The section of the probe she removed was in the storage container that hit your shoulder on its way into space. She had decided it wasn't safe to keep it on the ship in case somebody stumbled across it.”

“You mean she wasn't trying to kill me?”

“She didn't even know you were there. Nobody was supposed to be in that bay. She had set a remote airlock opening simply to remove the evidence. You just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was nothing but a coincidence.”

The Captain was an expert at surprising me. I didn't know whether to be relieved or upset that nobody had been trying to kill me. I hadn't really solved a mystery at all and I clearly hadn't helped the Briggs' marriage. It had all been one chance happening after another. Maybe that is what life is all about, I thought. The Captain didn't give me a chance to contemplate things further or to voice my feelings. He nodded towards the door.

“That will be all, Ulysses.”

Fiction


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