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"No, not Melissa, but Melisse with an e." She said proudly, determined eyes reaching to mine.
"Ah, sorry, Melisse," I replied, warmed by the timbre of her voice.
"And you are?"
"Jack." I answered, instantly hopeful that this conversation would lead to better times.
"So, Jack, you're with the Corps?"
"No, I'm in maintenance."
She was visibly disappointed, but I guess she didn't know the subtle signs that classified men in the hierarchy.
"We take care of the soldiers," I explained, "like nurses."
"Nurses, huh?" She said flatly, all excitement gone from her voice.
"And you think that's bad?" I smiled.
"No, no, but it's just not the same."
With that she left and I watched the back of her tunic sway from side to side.
In the hold, Gramercie was unloading cases of components. I walked up to him and gave him a hand with the delicate boxes. We did not speak, of course. Later, he left with Kronie, who had to be there at every assembly. I walked to my sleeping-can and retrieved my personal belongings from the compartment. I locked it and returned to the hold, bag in hand, ready to join up with the assignment line.
Ten or fifteen minutes passed then groups began to form. Engineers stood out near the gate, in their purple and gray uniforms. Further back, the biologists crowded around the stilled crawlers. The mechanics, further still, were busy assembling some device, which would soon be racing across the barren landscape.
We had been told that the planet had been terraformed to some degree and could sustain human life. We had also been told we would not encounter any dangerous native life forms. Looking around, however, I could see an inordinately high number of combat troops. It had not been lost on them either. They seemed ready for a fight.
The shuttle finally touched down, but most couldn't tell, however. The landing had been smooth and well executed. Without warning, the huge bay doors swung open, revealing the lush jungle of Arimathea. We all stood there, mouths and eyes gaping in awe.
This planet was beautiful!
The scouts were out first, blades churning the warm air. They disappeared quickly, not expected to return for days to refuel and to unload soil samples. The jumpers left, bouncing impossibly, much like gazelles in flight. They would set up perimeter defense. We had been told us we were alone, but we took no chances. Then the basics ambled out, walking much like men, carrying all their equipment with them. For those few worlds that do not use robots, the basic are called thus because they perform all basic tasks, from farming to building to transporting light cargo. They were originally designed to take care of children. Their features resembles closely those of women. Odd as it may seem to some, it was determined by the manufacturers to be the ideal layout, both on a technical and ergonomic stand point. They had soft, gentle voices and worked around the clock. Many people gave basics human names. When asked, however, robots preferred their serial number to any man-made baptism. The basics also had the best man-machine conversation interface, which led people to consider them more intelligent than other robots, but the jumpers and scouts really were far superiors.
The crawlers left, each of their eight spider-like legs carefully choosing where to touch the ground. They weighed some fifteen tons but had never injured anyone. They were the heavy transports, capable of great speed on any terrain. Their holds full, they carried all the materials required to build any of over one hundred and ninety modular structures.
We could not see the combat robots as they had already deployed. The shuttle held them in the upper bay, which opened during the final approach rather than after landing.
In groups, the humans began to exit. Everyone eventually left but us. We had to wait for our robots as there was not enough room in the main hold for them. Besides, we would not be needed for a little while. The metal floor opened up like a cheese grater and the sixty-ones lifted out of cargo. They were called sixty-ones as we of maintenance understood a robot's need for self. Those were the first two digits common to all maintenance robots. When the floor was smooth again we each proceeded to our machine. More than any others, we understood that robots referred to us as "their" humans. That did not bother me because I was inside of it twenty-four hours a day and it was an excellent working relationship.
The hatch slid open noiselessly. Not technically, but well below human hearing threshold. I climbed aboard, sat on the plush seat and fastened the safety harness. I was cut off from the outside. I looked out through wide angle cameras which fed the image directly in my mind through a minuscule chip at the base of my brain. Mine was by far the best job. I could manipulate the world around me without moving. I could communicate without talking. I could perform molecular physics with my eyes closed. I felt the gentle humming sound of rushing air and asked 61290 to grant me visual in one to one ratio. With my eyes closed (it is best described as a lucid dream), I could see myself flying high above the canopy of trees. 61290 took care of himself first. We flew high and fast and filtered altitude air, collecting harmful gases for his fusion reactor, leaving perfectly good air behind, as directed by the Terraforming Authority. When the pressurized tanks were full, we floated gently back down and settled on the shuttle's smooth hull waiting for reports of damaged units.
The sixty-ones were the only robots equipped with fusion reactors. Most others operated with carbon crushers for compactness but had to be refuelled. A few had photo-voltaic cells, such as satellites, who were never long out of light, and those who operated on atmosphere-less planets or asteroids. Finally, there were a few nuclear-powered robots still around, remnants of another technological age, who were yet to outlive their usefulness. These included food factories that had been in orbit around the old Sun for at least a million generations and who had fed mankind when mother earth no longer could. They still produced massive quantities of fine foodstuffs. Once in a while, even the most remote planets received an emergency food shipment from the old factories.
On the left, I saw 61903 lift up from its promontory and fly to a distant destination, undoubtedly on a repair mission. A call came for us too, and 61290 skimmed the top of the flat broccoli toward an unseen robot. It was a jumper that had been struck by a falling tree. I asked how it had happened and the jumper replied that it had been performing a long-range thermal scan and had not been able to detect the falling tree.
61290's engineering processor registered and soon produced a redesigned auxillary chip for the jumper. After installing and testing it, the jumper affirmed his ability to perform all scans simultaneously. Then 61290 repaired the jumper's cosmetic damage and replaced an air compressor valve. As we lifted away, the jumper disappeared in one bound into the impenetrable vegetation.
Back on the hull, we waited, but no other call came for us that day. Three scouts docked briefly for refueling. It seemed jungle flying was fuel inefficient.
In the evening, I slept. It was a much better sleep than the dreamless stasis on the spaceship. I dreamt of horses and armor-clad knights from a twentieth century film. In another dream, giant squids were beached on the smooth concrete floor of an old submarine dock and scuba divers stepped carefully between them. I had never seen squid or scuba divers before but I could nevertheless imagine them. I had another dream, just before I woke up, about Melisse with an e. She was floating above a field of purple flowers, just like the ones found outside of Gameo on Salaam-16, if one slows down on the airpressway. She smiled broadly and a giant white e appeared just below her. She laid down on its back, as the stems of the letters pointed toward the flowers below, and gazed at me with those determined eyes. Then I woke up.
The settlement had not been attacked by overwhelming native forces. It had not been harrassed by persistent mosquitoes. It had not even been bothered by wind or rain. The scouts and jumpers had nothing to report. The combots stood silently among us atop the shuttle. But we had been studied, evaluated, scored even, by a greater foe: the Terraforming Authority Internal Affairs.
Had we failed in any of our primary objectives, we would have been pulled out and another team would have been assembled later and sent here. Two hundred colonists and a thousand robots were simply not allowed to undo a thousand years of terraforming at a cost of over sixteen quadrillion dollars. It was enough money to buy a planet, complete with population and industries. It was harder to transform a rock into a lush world than to buy a planet, but mankind's ever expanding needs required fresh, new planets.
In the beginning, there had only been one, then two, then three colony bases. Then they had mushroomed throughout the galaxy. There were now nearly seven million inhabited planets. Most had population within the 100,000 to 500,000 range. The Geneticists Association made regular checks to maintain the genetic uniformity of the human specie. We were not expected to evolve very quickly, but slight differences could pose serious problems. There were many planets which contained various harmful viruses and bacteria. Mankind's aim was to improve its environment rather than destroy it and if those elements proved beneficial to the host planets (which they invariably did), mankind had to adapt.
61290 offered an interpretation of my dream but I kindly declined, not caring much about horsemen and squid and preferring my own erotic interpretation of the "e" to that of a computer chip.
Two other scouts refuelled and flew away again. There was, after all, no sentient life on the planet besides us, only plants and animals. Within the week, the settlement, the stability station and the orbital launcher were built. The excitement was gone for me. I did not see Melisse again. I only worked, slept, ate, drank, and played with myself.
One month later the starship returned. Having seen the settlers comfortably installed in their new home, we returned to the dreamless stasis in our cubicles, to half-sleep at light-nine to a distant planet. They told us later we had slept nine hundred years, and 61290 was still there, unchanged, still able to interpret my dreams. Melisse had died thirty generations ago, yet she lived in the recesses of my memory. I was about to cry, but 61290 distracted me so I didn't.
Gawa-19, the computer had called it. The nuclears had finally been dismantled and recycled. Old Earth had been abandoned. According to Sarakian Network Central, mankind grew at a rate of four billion yearly on nine million worlds. 61290 fed me a new picture: Artemis Nagoya, a scientist with team golf who too had hibernated the last 900 years.
That year, I had a boy and two daughters with Artemis. She was the sweetest person I've ever met, and we stayed together many work-years, interrupted as they were by millenias of sleep. Our children had led fruitful lives, we were told, but we had learned that life is a dream, that sleep is good only when visited by ancient ghosts.
We held each other tight under 61290's hull and nameless stars while our specie populated the universe. Now that we are both retired and living peaceful lives on a island of sand surrounded by an ocean of aquamarine silk, we often stand together at the water's edge, hand in hand, eyes full of tears ready to roll, content at last to be together under this sun's warm rays, our chips inactive, our bodies tired, our minds replete. We have lived the lives of those who had gotten everything, every pleasure, every pain, and we wanted nothing more, nothing except the love we felt within each other.
Leaving 61290 to a younger man had been difficult, but I could not leave Artemis.
Unlike any computers, she understood my dreams.
© 1997 Christopher Mahan