Saturday, June 29, 2024

Expelled: Explicated (Part II)

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At first, the three of them did nothing. They stopped working, and froze, not sure whether someone really was outside of the tent, or if they were hallucinating. This planet was uninhabitable to humans, but that might not be true of any native species. No, that shouldn’t matter. It wasn’t just that the composition of the air was incompatible to human lungs. The very thin atmosphere was almost exclusively composed of carbon dioxide. It wasn’t completely impossible for life to evolve on such a world, though it wasn’t probable. There was another knock. Even if aliens did evolve, there was something very human about the practice of knocking on a door to gain someone’s attention, which might not translate very well to an alien race. An evolved alien on a carbon dioxide world was even less likely at any rate.
The tent began to bulge inward. “Hello,” came a voice through the fabric. He sounded very curious, as if he wasn’t sure whether anyone was in here.
“How is he talking?” Airlock Karen questioned, more fearful than the others. Rita was a trained professional, and Elder knew who was out there.
“Conduction,” Elder explained vaguely. “Can you hear us?” he cried out.
“Oh, yes.” The blackmailer was still being creepily cheerful as if all this was very reasonable and to be expected.
“You got what you wanted...” Elder said, pausing for a moment. “We’re here. What do you want?”
“I want you,” the blackmailer replied.
“You want me for what?”
“Haha, sorry. I lifted my helmet from the tent, forgetting that you can’t hear me without it. I want do whatever you must to survive. I’ll be doing the same a few hundred meters away. Once you adapt well enough to travel from your tent, come find me. We won’t speak again until then.”
“This is a game to you?” Rita figured.
“More like a test, Lieutenant. I need to know what you’re made of. How many of you will last? Which ones? I’m building something here. Well not here, and not now, but I will, or rather, I will have. You just have to decide how badly you want to be a part of that. Come talk to me when you know, and when you can.”
“What are the odds?” Elder asked him. “What are the odds that we pass your test, and make it all the way to your settlement?”
He laughed again, and waited to respond. “A hundred percent.” They could see the bulge from his helmet disappear as he began to walk away.
“Who the hell was that?” Karen asked.
“I still don’t know, but I intend to find out.” Elder looked at the ladies. “But not right now. Our priorities haven’t changed. Food and water. If you’ve ever cared about anything else in your life, pretend that they don’t exist. From now on, the only things that matter are the four majors: air, shelter, water, and food, in that order.”
They went on with their business. Airlock Karen—who requested to be called Debra instead—even pitched in, helping to assemble the dayfruit growers to double their productivity. Meanwhile, Elder programmed the genetic makeup of the fruit, optimizing for geoponics rather than hydroponics. The kit that he had curated wouldn’t have enough water for all three of them if they had to use too much of it for food production. There was another option that he was considering. The blackmailer obviously had his own plan for survival, and was probably sitting pretty in another dimension, or something. He knew that this was all going to happen, and wanted it to, so he was fully prepared. There was enough juice for Elder to teleport to the blackmailer’s location, but he needed to know exactly where that was, and what he was getting into. If there was any form of teleportation resistance technology, it could spell Elder’s death. So maybe there was a fifth priority in addition to the major four: information.
There would be a month’s worth of meal bars for one person, but even if there was enough for everyone, they wanted to save them for an emergency. A worse emergency, that was. They planned on rationing over the course of the next several days, but stop after that to focus on the dayfruit. They would only return to the bars if something went wrong, and they had no choice. They had to be so careful with every move they made. One little mistake could lead to their doom, and they wouldn’t even necessarily see it coming. Spilling a cup of water could be devastating, so everything sensitive like that would be going in the collapsible sink to protect it from their shuffling around. It may sound like a small gesture, but carelessness was a consequence of hunger, thirst, and isolation. They had to be extra afraid of mistakes.
Once the four majors were set or in motion, Elder was able to focus on that fifth priority. He had recorded the conversation with his blackmailer, and commanded his tablet to find a match from the Extremus manifest. Since the comparative sample was muffled through the tent, the AI came up with a couple dozen possible matches. But Elder had heard the man’s voice during their first and only face-to-face meeting in his lab. He would recognize it if he concentrated. He stuck the earbuds in, and prepared to narrow down the list when he noticed Debra saying something. He couldn’t hear a single thing with these things in, so he had to take them out again right away. “Sorry, what?”
“Do we get to listen to your music too, or not?” she repeated.
“It’s not music,” Elder explained.
“What is it?” Rita asked.
He didn’t want to tell them. “It’s an essay from an Earthan science journal about chromatin remodeling and epigenomic reprogramming for enhanced nutritional yield in solanum mirabilis with an emphasis on the optimization of the upregulation of nutrient preservation for extended unrefrigerated life terms in suboptimal conditions, vis-à-vis our current conditions in a hostile environment with little to no consumable resource replenishment options. Are you interested?”
They stared at him until Rita said, “oh. I already read that. It’s pretty good, albeit a bit rudimentary,” she joked.
Elder smirked, and took out his handheld device. He swiped it over to guest mode, and tossed it to them. “All the best music is on there, but only from the late 21st century, and earlier. I prefer the classics.” The masses appeased, he put his buds back in, and started to focus on the voice samples. He was a bit distracted when he noticed that the girls chose to watch something instead of listening, projecting the film on the wall. It was The Martian, of all movies. Their eyes did not betray an acknowledgement of the irony. Or maybe they were just studying it for good ideas.
Fifteen minutes later, Matt Damon was in the middle of recording his first message while stranded alone on Mars. Elder was pretty sure that he found the right voice from the eleventh sample, but he needed to listen to the others to eliminate them. “Bronach Oaksent,” he couldn’t help but say out loud after listening to the sample for the fourth time, as well as one more listen of the very similar eighteenth sample.”
“Is that a band, errr...?” Debra asked him.
The cat was out of the bag now, Elder had to come clean. “That’s who did this to us. That’s who’s outside the tent.”
“You’re telling me that’s the name of a human being?” Debra pressed.
“Apparently, so.” Elder was still chilled from the voice sample itself, the words of which reiterated his belief that he had found the right suspect. I don’t care what happens to this ship in the end. Your definition of extreme is limited to space, when you should be more motivated by time. That’s where all the real power lies. Bronach wanted Elder to build that time machine, so he could go back and do something nefarious with it. Elder’s initial thought was to kill himself to prevent that from being possible, but in many years, he had come across multiple chances to sacrifice himself for the greater good, and he had never made that choice before. That was one reason he was in this mess in the first place.
“Who is he?” Rita asked. “I don’t recognize the name.”
Elder looked back down at the profile he had pulled up. “He’s no one. No family, no community ties, no job, low contribution score.”
“Maybe he altered his own records,” Debra offered. “He’s smart enough.”
“How would you know how smart he is?” Rita asked her.
“Well, he pulled this off, didn’t he?”
Elder regarded her with mild disgust, split evenly between Debra herself, and Bronach. “No higher education. He was homeschooled.”
Rita flinched. “Oh.”
“Oh? Oh, what?”
Now she was the one with a secret that she wanted to keep. But there were four people in the entire world. If she couldn’t tell them, she couldn’t tell anyone. “His records were probably erased, but not by him. The homeschool label is an old spycraft tactic. It’s to prevent anyone from looking deeper into someone’s past. When you’re homeschooled, there are no records, so snoopers won’t be surprised when they don’t find anything.”
“He’s a spy?” Debra asked.
“Not necessarily,” Rita answered. “Some people actually are indeed homeschooled. But given our present circumstances, it’s a safe bet that he’s been highly trained in espionage and manipulation techniques.”
“He talks in probabilities,” Elder revealed. “This suggests that he’s highly calculating.”
“So, I’m right,” Debra figured. “He’s smart.”
“You were right,” Elder admitted, not upset about validating her, but worried about what she was right about. What was Bronach planning, and what did these two have to do with it? A time machine on its own wasn’t too terribly dangerous all the way out here. They were over a thousand light years from the stellar neighborhood, which would limit his ability to alter the past. He would need other technologies, like a reframe engine, or maybe just stasis. If he wanted to change history, coming all the way out here was a hard way to go about it. There was a reason that he got on Extremus, and a reason that he got off when he did. None of this was random, and they couldn’t trust their intuitions. This profile didn’t give them enough information about who they were dealing with. Maybe Elder really should kill himself. But where would that leave Rita and Debra?
Rita shut the movie off, seemingly no longer in the mood. She tapped on the device until some classical music started to play for them all to hear. She carefully lowered the volume. “The carbon scrubber is functioning optimally, right?
“It is,” Elder replied.
“Air, check. The tent is sealed up properly, no leaks?”
“No leaks.”
“Shelter,” Debra jumped in.
“The toilet’s ready to go,” Rita went on.
“Yes. Water. Gross water.”
“Lastly, the dayfruit seeds are growing.”
“Slowly, yes,” Elder confirmed.
“Food,” they chanted roughly simultaneously.
“We’ve had a hard day. Turn your screen off. Let’s just go to sleep.”
“We’ve not even talked about that,” Elder said, realizing now that the lower priority issues were still issues. “The sleeping bag only fits one person. I mean, I guess two people could fit if they were willing to snuggle...”
Rita smiled. “I’m a Lieutenant, remember? I can sleep anywhere, anyhow. You too share the bag; sleep back to back, I would recommend. I’ll be fine.”
“I sleep in the buff,” Debra divulged. “I just don’t feel comfortable any other way.”
“Then use the clothes that you’re not wearing as a pillow,” Elder suggested. We’ll use the actual pillow as a barrier between us.”
“Okay.” She was a difficult person, but not without the capacity for humility. Even Karens had people who loved them, and those people weren’t insane.
“We should be conserving power anyway, so sleep is a good idea, and it’s healthier to do it when it’s cooler.” He reached over to the microfusion reactor to cycle down the isofeed. A reactor shouldn’t ever be turned off completely, but he could limit the amount of output, including the waste heat, which was their main source of warmth here. The lights dimmed, and Rita turned off the music. “No, as long as you two are fine with it, keep the music on. It’s good for you, and don’t worry about the power.”
“I’m fine with it,” Debra said.
They continued to listen to Clair de Lune as they quietly got ready for bed. Elder removed most of his clothes too, but not everything. He just needed his own shirt and pants for a pillow. Rita crawled over to the other side of the tent to curl up into the fetal position. Debra squirmed a lot, probably because she was used to having all the space of a full-sized bed, but she didn’t complain, so that was nice. He had extra melatonin sleep masks, but he didn’t want to offer her one, and have her be offended. It was time that they started to learn how to live together, because they were going to be stuck with each other for a long time. He made a mental note to offer one to the both of them tomorrow, framing it as if he were remembering that he should have worn one himself. Yeah, that should work. For now, they would all just have to figure it out on their own.
Over the course of the next week, they developed a routine. They had nothing better to do besides continue to survive, so they shared stories from their pasts. Elder didn’t tell them why he was on the run, but he did discuss his life on Earth centuries ago. They were receptive and nonjudgmental. But they were still going a little crazy. They needed to find a way to spend some time apart. The bathroom situation was uncomfortable at best.

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