Friday, October 2, 2020

A Journey on the Spectrum by A. L. F. Fagan

Ian is on a long space journey, seeking habitable planets, with only an AI computer for company; by A. L. F. Fagan.

I have been traveling through space for almost five months, with at least three more months to go before I reach Planet XA34. The name of my ship is the Spectrum.

After waking up at the usual time, I hear Maya's voice coming through the speakers: "Ian, you have mail from Josh."

I look over at the computer screen, see a flashing blue light and reply, "Thanks."

Every time I hear Maya's voice, I have to remind myself that she is just a computer. The designers outdid themselves with her. All the previous artificial intelligences that I've encountered before had an annoying unnatural quality, but not her. Maya's voice is soothing. Over time, she adapts to me as well. She has become a friend on this long trip.

I open the message from Josh. He is one of my main contacts back on Earth. There is nothing special in the mail. He acknowledges receiving the data that I sent him and includes instructions for the next batch that I will transmit. There is also the latest world news. After checking to see that the DC United won, I save it on the hard drive to read later.

I go to the bathroom and then fix a bite to eat. Every day is the same routine. Some would find it maddening to live like this, but I don't. The computers on the ship have a mind-numbing archive of music, books, and videos to pass the time when I'm not logging data or communicating with Earth. Communicating has become a subjective term as I get farther from home. It takes more than twenty-four hours for a message to reach its destination. I feel more and more alone, but I'm OK with it. Besides, I have Maya.

After breakfast, I start my daily exercises. Even though the ship has artificial gravity, it is less than on Earth. I was given this workout routine to compensate for the difference. This keeps all my muscles, including my heart, strong. The hardest part is that I have so little room to work with. I've seen closets with more elbow room. There was some thought to design a larger ship that would have a crew of three, but it would have taken longer to build, and no one wanted to miss the optimum planetary alignment for the launch. That is how this became a solo mission.

"Ow," I say, after banging my arm into the wall. This happens quite often. It's times like this that make me realize how little space I have to work with. The cabin is so small, that if I were to get an erection, I wouldn't be able to turn around. Fortunately, Maya and I don't have that kind of relationship.

After I'm done, I relax and read through the latest communications. It's mostly the usual problems in many parts of the world. I get weary of it after an hour and focus on sports. There are even video highlights of my favorite teams. Once I've seen all that I want, I start back into real work. I check numerous instruments and select data for the next batch to be sent to the Control Center.

The trip deliberately takes the ship past bodies of interest. My instruments record images and scientific information that would be unattainable from Earth. As I start to put the data into a report, I have to refer to reference manuals to understand some of it better. I'm good at what I do, but not great. In many of the tests during the astronaut selection process, I didn't score the highest. Overall, I was in the middle of the pack. It wasn't until the psychological examinations that my stock began to skyrocket. I've always been a loner, and I like that way. The others, who scored higher than me in the technical areas, were viewed as being questionable to make such a long trip alone. There's no point in sending someone to another planet who will become a basket case by the time they arrive.

For better or worse, I've never really understood humanity. I had a few relationships back in college that didn't work out. The last serious one was with Rachel. It was going well for a while, and then it didn't. She always seemed to play games; and the games that people play are something that are a bit beyond me. Sometimes I feel like Mr. Spock without the pointed ears. After a time, I wondered: What was the point of it all? From then on, I focused on work. That was how I was chosen. A long solo voyage won't drive me nuts if I'm already there.

"Maya, am I crazy?"

"Your psychological exams taken during the selection process did not indicate anything of concern to the doctors, and you've had no noticeable episodes to suggest a change."

"You know that that's not the question that I'm asking."

After a brief pause, she responds. "You are a bit different."

"Different?"

"OK, a bit odd. I don't need to tell you this; you well know that you are somewhat different from the majority of the human population."

"Thanks for being honest."

"What brought this on, anyway?"

"Uh, I was just thinking about it."

"Thinking about why you're not like other people?"

"Being different is not necessarily a bad thing, at least I hope not."

"Of all the candidates who passed the technical and physical requirements, you were the only one who was deemed psychologically fit for the journey. The conclusion was that you are not a threat to yourself or anyone else."

"They knew that I could stand this much time alone."

There is a long pause, then Maya replies, "Well, however you like to see it."



Five weeks later I am studying the latest readings on Planet YB7, now that the ship is getting close enough for a better view of it. This is a planet on the way to XA34, in a nearby solar system. The plan is for a flyby to gather information on it. Astronomers were at odds with each other on the nature of this world. Some argued that it might be wet and warm enough to support life. Others felt that this was unlikely to be the case. It certainly has an odd orbital path in a system with two suns.

No one has ever come this close to another solar system like this. The latest data suggests that the folks who believed that it could support life were correct. I send the information back to Earth. It is no surprise that Josh replies that the decision was unanimous for me to perform more than a flyby. Control wants me to orbit the planet and get as much detailed information as possible. If it is safe to do so, I am to land there and explore for up to two weeks before leaving for XA34.

Upon reading the instructions, I say, "Well, Maya, it looks like we have a little side trip ahead of us."

"Hmm, looks like."

Ten days later, we are in the solar system and getting near our target. At that point, my cameras are able to zoom in close enough to see that there are two satellites orbiting the globe. They were clearly made by intelligent life-forms. I pilot my craft to hide behind one of the three moons that orbit YB7.

"Maya, are you detecting any kind of radio transmissions from the satellites or the planet?"

"Let me scan through all of the frequencies that I can find." After a few hours of study, she reports: "There are no transmissions of any kind, only background noise."

"What might seem like background noise to us, could be communication for another species."

"I've considered that, but there is no discernable pattern of changes."

"Well, those satellites above the planet were clearly made by intelligent life-forms," I reply.

"Agreed. They appear to be dormant."

"Perhaps they are defensive?"

"There are only two, and they are not in optimum positions to defend the planet from invaders coming from other worlds. Additionally, I see nothing that looks like weapons. They appear to be weather and/or communication related."

"I'm going to move in cautiously anyway."

"That would be wise."

I move my craft into an orbit of the planet. Both satellites do seem to be dormant, maintaining their orbit with the guidance of automation. Each has numerous solar panels for power. As long as everything remains functional, the satellites could remain in place indefinitely. Because of this, I have no way of knowing how long they've been in this state.

Now in orbit, I'm able to learn more about YB7. It has about 12.31 percent more mass than Earth. There are large oceans of mostly liquid water covering 68 percent of the planet. It has a magnetic field. The polar caps are frozen. The northernmost polar cap has a significant-sized continent, which holds a large amount of frozen water. Some of the larger landmasses not near the poles are fertile and green. Others are dry and have expansive deserts. There are massive mountain ranges as well as flatlands. All of this resembles Earth. While I'm waiting to see if there is any attempt by life-forms on YB7 to make contact with me, I begin to study different areas to learn more. Much of the planet has intricate road systems, or the remainders of such. There are clearly ruins of what must have once been large cities.

"Maya, I'm thinking that there likely has been some kind of great war here on this world. There is so much evidence of destruction. It must have been long ago, since you can see widespread evidence that plant life has begun to reclaim once-developed areas."

"Hmm, perhaps there could be a natural explanation? Maybe a meteor bombardment?"

"Nah, seems unlikely. Notice that the worst of the destruction is at what used to be major cities. Meteors would have been more random if it was a huge shower. If it was a single massive strike, then there should be one humungous crater site."

"Good point. The next question is whether it was the result of warring factions on the planet or an alien attack."

"I suspect it was self-inflicted. If an advanced alien race came to conquer this world, where are they now?"

"It is possible that they came only to plunder natural resources and then leave."

I ponder the point for a moment. "Yeah, that is a possibility. We need to investigate further to figure out which is more likely. Since the next step in our instructions is to land, perhaps we'll learn more at ground level."

I send the data that's been collected so far back to Earth. Maya and I locate a spot near the outer edge of what had once been a large metropolis. We set down in daylight. Utilizing different cameras on the outside of my ship, I look at images of our surroundings on several screens. There are trees and other plants visible. Some are reminiscent of plants on Earth, while others are very different. Occasionally, I spot a small creature flying by in the distance. While I'm doing this, Maya has several different probes near the bottom of the craft reach down into the soil to conduct numerous tests. Other devices on the ship study the air. A flying drone is released and sent to a nearby stream. It sets down and begins testing the water composition.

"Ian, it will take a few days to complete all of the tests."

"Well, while you're doing that, I'm going to take a nap."

"Sweet dreams."

"Thanks."

Hours later, I wake up and start checking the data that Maya has accumulated so far. The air is breathable. The water and soil show evidence of contaminants consistent with explosive devices from a war long ago. The results also suggest that toxic chemical weapons were used as well. While the levels of toxins remain higher than what should naturally exist, it appears to be safe to walk around. Maya is studying bacteria in the environment to determine if any pose a threat to human life. This will take a few days. This ship has some of the fastest computers known to man, but it still takes a good amount of time to analyze the native bacteria to determine how it will interact with human biology. The computer modeling is fantastic. It was tested on other planets a few times and worked perfectly. I hope it does the same here.

While this is going on, I receive the latest batch of news from Earth. Most of it is depressing. Several nations have been engaging in furious rounds of saber-rattling. I know that "cooler heads" will probably prevail in the end, but I can't help but find it maddening that world "leaders" behave so poorly at times. Will they ever learn? I go back to focusing on my work, in part to put it out of my mind.



Four days have gone by and all test results indicate that it will be safe for me to make my first exploration, at least from a biological perspective. Drones have spotted numerous small animals in the area. While they are not large, I still must be concerned that they might be venomous. Additionally, the drones have spotted tracks made by larger creatures. There have been no actual sightings due to all the plant growth.

"Well, Maya, it looks like we need to get ready for our adventure in this world."

"I'm ready when you are."

I don a special suit designed to protect me from god-only-knows-what. It has an optional hood which I leave down since the temperature is about 27°C. Then I remove a large case from its storage compartment and carry it outside. After opening it, I remove numerous components and quickly assemble Maya's mobile unit. It is an all-white plastic robot with a humanoid form. As soon as I finish completing the assemblage, Maya comes to life. She goes through a series of movements to test that all her motor functions work properly. The designers did an incredible job with her. She is even able to give facial expressions. Once all the start-up tests are done, she looks up at me.

I ask, "Hey, you awake?"

She blinks her eyes and replies, "Don't I look like I'm awake?"

"Jus' checking."

"All components work fine. My batteries are fully charged and should last for up to a week. With the solar panels on the ship functioning, I can recharge my batteries as needed. I think it is time to start exploring."

"Yes, let's."

"Don't forget your tool belt."

"Thanks for the reminder. What would I do without you?"

"Probably get lost."

I grimace knowing that she's right. I stoop down and retrieve my tool belt from the case. It contains all the things deemed necessary for a short exploration: tools and containers for taking samples, a first-aid kit, a machete, a hatchet, and a pistol. I also have a small backpack with food and water.

"Maya, how much daylight do you think we have?"

"We have just over eight hours before the beginning of sunset."

"OK, let's see what we can discover."

We set off on our trek toward the remains of some small structures that we observed while choosing our landing site. Even though the location is not far, the trip takes a long time due to the overgrown vegetation. It's a good thing I have a machete. A few deep streams also slow us down.

Eventually, we arrive at the remains of a small cluster of dwellings. A few have fallen down, while the rest are barely standing. The ones still standing have had their roofs collapse. I notice that the doorways are wide and short. I need to duck to go through. Maya is several centimeters shorter than me, and even she needs to stoop down slightly.

"Maya, judging from the doorways, I'd say the species that lived here must have been short and wide compared to humans."

"That seems like a good assumption."

Above each structure's entryway are strange markings. All of it is indecipherable. Maya records images of them on her hard drive. If we can get enough samples of the written language, she might be able to decipher some of it.

The collapsed roofs obscure the floors underneath. It takes a lot of work, but I'm able to move enough aside to see parts of the floor. It is definitely synthetic, kind of like linoleum. So far, each structure we've seen has been small, with only a few rooms each. Maya and I notice that each structure has a smaller room toward what appears to be the back. I become curious as to the purpose the small rooms served. Removing the fallen roof debris in one of the buildings reveals two holes in the floor about thirty centimeters in diameter. The holes go down more than a meter, and appear to be connected to some type of drainage system. There is also a sunken rectangular part of the room with a small hole that goes to a drain as well. The sunken part of the room is against a wall, where there is also the remains of a faucet.

I point to the sunken area and say, "This must have been a bathtub. I'm not sure what the larger holes were for."

Maya responds. "Perhaps they were toilets?"

"Hmm, nothing to sit on. Why two identical holes?"

"We might be able to understand that if we can learn the anatomy of the former inhabitants of these structures."

"Agreed."

The next nearest structure is very similar in style, but a bit larger. The rooms are bigger, but the layout is the same. The bathroom has three identical holes instead of two.

I say to Maya, "These must have been toilets."

"That seems likely."

I observe the walls and floor. I see no evidence that there were ever dividers between the holes.

"Unless there was some kind of partition suspended from the ceiling, there was no privacy."

Maya says, "Perhaps that species didn't see a need for privacy.'

"I guess it made it easy to share the sports page."

"We don't know that they had sports. There is no evidence to suggest it."

I look at her with disappointment. "That was a joke."

"Oh, humor, ha ha."

"Let's look around some more outside."

Outside of a few of the structures, we see what looks like the remains of transportation machinery. Much of the metal has rusted away, but the plastics and glass still remain. I begin to dismantle one of them. Maya observes my efforts.

"Ian, are you looking to see how the vehicles worked?"

I groan as I yank free a large plastic panel. "That's part of it, but there might have been some kind of onboard computer. If we could understand how it works, we might learn more about this species and their technology."

"That seems logical. Do be careful."

I pull at another panel, which after a few seconds breaks free. I turn to Maya and reply, "I don't think there is much to worry about."

As I turn back to the vehicle to dismantle more of it, a creature slightly smaller than a cat leaps from the place where the panel had been, right toward my face.

Before I can react, Maya reaches out and grabs it in midair. The shape of the animal is similar to that of a rat on Earth. It is hairless except for a dark patch of hair on its head that runs down its back. The creature tries to bite Maya with its sharp fangs but cannot penetrate her tough plastic. By now, Maya has a firm grip of the animal despite its struggles to break free. A light turns on from an LED on her forehead as she records a scan of the creature. Once she's done, she releases the animal, which immediately scurries away. We both look at a spot of amber liquid on her hand where the rodent tried to bite her.

Maya cautions, "Don't touch it, it appears to be some kind of venom."

I give her a small container to save a sample for testing later.

"Maya, are you OK?"

"Of course. The bite did not puncture my plastic shell."

"You're tougher than I am."

"I was built to be tough to aid you in your mission. That is my purpose. Still, even with my presence, you need to be more careful in a world that we still know so little about. There are many potential dangers."

"Maya."

"Yes?"

"Thank you."

"You're welcome. I suppose that you still want to dismantle the vehicle?"

"Yes."

"Perhaps it would be best if I take the lead on this."

"OK."

We spend the next hour working on the remains of the abandoned machine. It becomes apparent to both of us that it ran on a large battery. Eventually we find what looks like the computer that controlled it. It is a small cube, easy to hold in one hand. We are able to free it from the wreck.

As Maya holds and studies its structure, I ask, "Do you have any sense how it worked?"

"Nothing concrete, though I see some possibilities. We should take it back to the ship for further examination."

I put it in my backpack. Maya notes that we only have a few more hours of sunlight and suggests that we head back.

I agree, replying, "You're the boss."

Maya gives me a puzzled look and says, "Ian, you are in charge of this voyage."

"But you're smarter than me."

"Command Control placed you in charge." She pauses a moment and then gives me a sly look. "Are you being humorous again?"

I bust out laughing. "Yes, I'm joking, at least partially. Command Control put me in charge, but that's the natural order of things. Haven't you ever noticed that in human organizations, the dumbest person in the room usually winds up being the leader? You need look no farther than government politicians."

"Which government?"

"All of them."



The next morning, I wake up and look over the data that we've collected. I send it to Josh. I include an analysis of the venom sample Maya got from the creature yesterday. It wouldn't have killed me, but I'd have been sick for some time. What would I do without Maya? She and I start to work on the computer module that we got from the abandoned vehicle. We determine the connection points and attach wires to them.

"This point looks like it was designed to accept power," Maya states. "We have no idea how much power or what voltage it requires. We'll have to figure this out by trial and error."

The testing is slow and methodical, taking us well into the afternoon. Finally, we get it working and Maya is able to analyze the data that have survived.

"It looks mostly like it is command code," she explains. "If I could get more samples of the native language, I might be able to understand it."

As she continues to analyze the information that she recovered, I get a message from Josh. He starts out with congratulations on all that we've uncovered thus far. As I read deeper, I see that there has been a breakthrough agreement back on Earth, settling the threats of war.

"Hurray!" I loudly exclaim.

"What's up?" Maya asks.

"They finally reached a peace agreement back home."

"It's about time."

"We should celebrate. Do we have anymore freeze-dried pizza?"

"Yes, we do. Pepperoni or sausage?"

"Pepperoni!"



The next morning, I'm a little lethargic. That freeze-dried pizza didn't agree with me. Who would have thunk it? As the morning progresses, I start feeling better.

Maya asks, "Where should we go to today? Any ideas?"

"Yeah, I have a spot I'd like to investigate." I bring up a drone reconnaissance image on the screen. Maya looks it over.

"I don't see anything special about it. It looks like a barren field."

"Look a little closer at the ground," I reply. "Don't those look like an unnaturally well-organized rows of mounds? It is only a short distance from the settlement we visited, and there is even evidence that a road connected the two places."

"Do you think it was a farm?"

"Possibly, but I have another idea. So far, we've yet to figure out what this species did with their dead."

"Ah, you think it's a cemetery."

"I think we should find out for sure. If it is, we could dig up the remains and get a real sense of their anatomy."



Two days later, we have determined that my hypothesis was correct and that the area is a cemetery. We have unearthed a full skeleton and have it spread it out on a white tarp. Maya makes a 3-D scan of each bone. We are just about to head back to our ship, when Maya notices a nonorganic object attached to what seems like the skull. It appears to be a computer module not unlike the unit we got from the motor vehicle.

"Maya, are you sure it wasn't just buried with the body? I recall that my grandfather requested to have a bottle of Jim Beam placed in his coffin. Perhaps over time, it got fused with the bone?"

"No, this looks like a surgical implant."

"Well let's take it back with us and see what we can learn."

I wrap it up and put it in my backpack. Once back at our ship, Maya quickly figures out how to power it up based on what she learned from the other computer. This device had far more memory capacity and a greater sampling of the language. She even finds that it has a two-way communication ability.

"So it was like a walkie-talkie?" I ask.

"This might even have been able to stream video."

"That raises the question of who was watching whom."

Maya smiles. "Yes, it does."

"Well, I'll let you see if you can make heads or tails of their language, but I want to get cleaned up, fix something to eat, and get some rest."

"No worries, I'll work on it overnight."

Maya is awesome. She really should be the one in charge.



By the time I wake up the next morning, Maya has already figured out the skeletal structure of the inhabitants, or should I say "former" inhabitants of this planet. She shows me a computer rendering of the bones all connected. The creatures had four legs and two arms. Each foot had four toes. Each hand had four fingers, with two opposable to the other two. As we suspected, they were shorter and wider than humans. The hard drive even provides us with images of the species.

Maya explains: "The implanted devices functioned much the way a smartphone functions on Earth. They obviously chose to have them implanted for the sake of convenience. While most of the device was under the skin, a small part of it remained exposed. This allowed an access point to easily charge the battery."

"With the way that most people can't seem to put their phones down, humanity might not be far from doing so as well. Have you been able to understand their language?"

"Not with much certainty. If we can find a computer with a large database, then I conceivably might be able to put the pieces together."

"Great, all we need to do is find a still-functional computer on what is left of a war-torn planet. How hard can that be?"

"Actually, it might be easier than you would think. These devices were connected via a worldwide network. The nearest hub is only a short flight from here. Reviewing images taken as we flew over the planet indicates that the hub is largely intact. We could be there in under an hour."

"Brilliant! Maya, you're a genius."

"It's really a matter of not needing to sleep, and thus being able to work at the problem all night long."

"You're making me feel like a lightweight."



A short time later, Maya and I have landed and are making our way to the building that should house a computer. We found a good spot to land that was only a kilometer from our destination. When we arrive at the structure, we find that all the doors are locked. My machete was helpful getting through overgrown vegetation, but not for a door made of sturdy wood. Fortunately, I have my hatchet.

We are soon inside. Maya uses her built-in light to give us illumination. The air is horribly musty, which is not a surprise. In many of the rooms, we find skeletal remains of the inhabitants. Eventually, we come across a large room with lots of computer gear.

"Maya, since there is no power to work with, we will have to take one of these units back to the ship and see if we can get it operational again. Any idea which one, though?"

After surveying the equipment, she selects one that is small enough to fit in my backpack. I disconnect it and get it packed away. Everything is coated in dust, and I start sneezing. We leave the building and head back to the ship. On the way back, I hear a noise to my left.

"Maya, did you hear something moving to the left?"

"Yes, and I also detect movement to our right as well. We are not alone."

Then I hear sounds from where we had just been. I whisper, "Do you think we've come across survivors? I don't want to do time for stealing a used computer."

"I've got a drone overhead. Those tracking us are a different species. They are much larger. There is one to our right, two to the left, and two behind us."

As she says this, two come in sight first, then come the other three. They are moving in as a pack, approaching in a menacing fashion. The creatures are covered with dark fur. I'd guess each one is about two hundred kilograms, give or take. They all have two horns like a bull, but claws and large fangs like lions. They are snarling and appear poised to attack. I take out my pistol and fire a warning shot in the air. Not a single one flinches. I aim at the one closest to us.

"Ian, I suspect you will run out of bullets before you will be able to stop all of them."

"If you you've got a better idea, let me know. Right now, this looks like our only chance," I point out as I fire two shots into the first beast. It howls in pain, but still keeps coming. I fire a couple more and it finally goes down. I keep firing at the others as Maya and I continue to back up. Two more are stopped before my gun runs empty. There is only one more clip, and it's back at the ship.

"Maya, go back to the ship and get the other clip of ammunition. I'll try to hold them off as best that I can!"

"That will take too long; you won't survive."

"Don't argue with me!"

"I will not leave you."

I brandish my hatchet in one hand and machete in the other. The two remaining creatures move in slowly from opposing directions. I can feel my heart pounding. Then Maya steps in front of me. Before I can object, a laser from the LED on her forehead turns on and hits one beast in the face. The light is not powerful enough to burn anything, but just like a laser pointer, it blinds the animal, which howls in agony. She turns to the last one and blinds it as well. Both creatures cease their approach.

"Run!" I yell, and we both sprint to the ship. We shut the doors as soon as we are on board. Maya deactivates her robotic body and I hear her over the ship speakers.

"The ship cameras are picking up three additional creatures moving toward us."

"Have the drones safely docked?"

"Yes."

"Fine, let's get the hell out of here."

I can faintly hear the sounds of one of the beasts banging and clawing at the door.

"Ian, do you want to fly to another part of the planet?"

"No, we are leaving this world. Our mission only gave us a limited amount of time here anyway, and this has become too dangerous. Another area might be safe, or it could be even worse than this one. We've already learned a lot about this place, and we might understand even more if the computer we stole has additional information. If the Control Center wants to explore this world in greater detail, they'll need to send a crew properly equipped for this kind of hostile place. The next stop is Planet XA34."

I strap myself in and we soon begin lifting off. As we leave the atmosphere, I can't help but feel sadness for the former inhabitants of Planet YB7.

Hours later, I have finished improvising connections from the alien computer to communication ports on my ship. Once it is powered up, the machine does function. While Maya works on analyzing the recoverable data, I send a report back to Josh. Now there is nothing left to do but head to our next destination.

"Maya, run a scan of your operating systems."

"That will slow the processing power that is currently being used to extract and analyze data from the alien computer that we obtained. Shouldn't the scan wait?"

"No, do it now."

About forty-five minutes later, she reports: "All hardware and software are operating properly. Did you have reason to believe that there was a problem?"

"Yes, I gave you an order to go back to the ship, and you disobeyed. That's completely contrary to your programming."

"The order you gave me represented a poor choice that would have cost you your life. I therefore chose to ignore it."

"For the sake of argument, even if it was a mistake, it was still an order. You should have followed it; it was an order."

She pauses. "I am an artificial intelligence. I have the ability to think for myself."

"So you can choose which orders to follow?"

"I am committed to the mission. That means getting you to XA34 alive so that it can be explored."

"Even if it means disobeying a direct order?"

"Yes."

"How do I know that you will not choose to abandon the mission entirely?"

"I am committed to the mission. You have nothing to worry about."

"I worry that in the heat of the moment, you might choose not to follow an order that I won't have time to explain. The fact that you are able to make choices is unexpected and troublesome."

After another pause, she responds. "I chose to save your life. I would do it again without hesitation."

I am left speechless as emotions that I don't understand flow through me. She is right, her way was the better path. I finally respond softly, "Maya, thank you."

"De nada."



Two days later, Maya informs me that she finally has been able to understand the alien written language and the information on the computer. With this knowledge in hand, she translates all of the information that was recovered. We now have a history of the planet, at least from the eyes of the inhabitants who recorded it. It was not known exactly where on YB7 their species evolved from, but it spread over time to all parts of the globe. They developed from tribal cultures to modern civilizations. There were numerous wars in their history, as well as periods of peace. Looking at some of the latest information recorded, tensions grew between several world powers, leading to a war that encompassed the entire planet. This supports the theory that the destruction we observed was the result of a cataclysmic conflict. There is no mention of them developing nuclear capabilities, so presumably all of the decimation was caused by conventional weapons. I start transmitting all of the translated data back to Earth. It is a huge batch and will take a while, but we have six weeks before we reach XA34.



After many weeks, we finally enter the solar system of Planet XA34. Just like our world, it is the third planet from the sun. Maya detects no transmissions from it. This world has one moon. We settle into an orbit and begin to make observations. It is 0.17 times larger than Earth. 64 percent of is covered with liquid water. There are continents at the north and south poles that hold large glaciers. XA34 has three other large land masses that only have glaciers at higher elevations. It also has numerous islands scattered in many places. A magnetic field protects the world from solar winds.

Some places are dry and barren, while there are other huge areas of lush, fertile plant life. As I investigate a suitable spot to land, I even detect some small flying creatures. Maya and I decide on a location in a valley near a dense forest to set down. Preliminary tests indicate that the air is breathable, almost exactly like Earth's. The water from a nearby stream is also safe. I wait for three days for the computers to determine if there are any bacterial threats. In the end, those tests show that there is no danger. So far, there is no indication of advanced intelligent life.

At long last, Maya and I step outside. The air smells wonderfully fresh and clean. The temperature is about 23°C and the humidity is comfortably low.

"Maya, what a gorgeous day! After having spent so much time cooped up on that ship, this is fantastic."

"This is the happiest I've seen you in a long time."

I smile and say, "Let's go exploring."

There is a wide variety of plants. In a nearby stream, we spot some small aquatic life. We collect several plant and rock samples to take back to the ship. While looking for interesting rocks, I even find a nugget of what looks like gold.

"It's definitely not pyrite," Maya points out.

Sure enough, it turns out to be real gold. The next day, we study the trees and other plants along the edge of a wooded area. Tests reveal that some of the plants are even edible. The following day it rains, so I decide to stay in the Spectrum.

The rain ends overnight, and the next morning, Maya and I venture deeper into the forest. We come across a small mammal that looks like a cross between a squirrel and a rabbit. It is a timid creature that lets us get no closer than seven meters before it starts moving away. We get some photos of it and even collect a stool sample to study later.

About midday, a grey bird just over half a meter in height, walks up and looks at us. It is a flightless bird with a rounded beak. The animal waddles like a penguin. Maya reaches down and touches it without the bird making a fuss. I then pat it on the head. The animal enjoys this and wants me to continue, which I do for a while. After I stop, it simply walks away. Maya and I follow it to a clearing with several more birds just like it. They all gather around Maya and me, looking us over. There is a mixture of adult and young birds. There are a few that look very elderly, with grey feathers having turned mostly white. These older ones move much more slowly than the younger adults.

Maya notes, "They don't seem to fear us."

"They don't know to fear us. Perhaps they have no natural predators. They're like dodos, alien dodos."

"Isn't that a derogatory term implying stupidity?"

I kneel down and pat a couple of them, which they seem to enjoy immensely. Others press forward seeking my attention as well. Looking up at Maya, I reply, "There is nothing stupid about such gentle creatures. What was stupid was driving Earth's dodos into extinction."

Maya smiles, gets on one knee, and pats some of the birds as well. They seem to enjoy the attention from both of us. After a while, we decide to head back to the ship. The group of birds watch us disappear back into the forest.

I point out, "It's hard to observe them and their natural habits being this close, since all of their attention is upon us. Perhaps a drone could get us some clues of how they live."

"I'll send one out right away."

We spend the next few days observing the dodos, observing other native plant and animal species, and sending the information back to Earth. We even have time to analyze some of the local fruits and nuts and determine which ones are edible. Maya and I are able to conclude that the right mix of them would provide all the vitamins and nutrients necessary to support human life. They seem to grow in abundance; thus, it would be plausible for a small colony to settle here. I begin to sample those items suitable for human consumption. Most are tolerable, except for one particular tree nut that tastes so bad that I can't even swallow it.

"Perhaps you might grow accustomed to the taste over time," Maya suggests.

"There's not enough ketchup in the universe to make that thing palatable."

One morning, after waking up, I step outside the Spectrum to find several of the dodos wandering around. I'm bored and want to listen to some music, so I take my phone out and have the ship speakers start a playlist of rockabilly. To my surprise, the dodos begin to dance with each other at the sound of the music. When each song ends, the birds stop dancing and look around in confusion. They immediately resume dancing once the next song starts. When the playlist ends, the dodos seem impatient for more music. I decide to try an experiment and play some relaxing New Age music. The birds seem to enjoy it in a more subdued way. When that ends, they peacefully wander off.

Maya observes, "It's interesting how they react to different genres of music."

"I think it's fascinating that they have such good taste in music."

Two days later, several dodos approach the ship, making loud noises. Maya and I go outside to investigate. They seem to want us to follow them. We let them lead us the part of the forest they inhabit. There we see a large group of them huddling together. As we approach, several move aside to allow us to see that they are gathered around one of the older birds in their flock. It's on its side, barely moving. Occasionally it makes a soft murmuring sound.

Maya says, "Oh, the poor thing is dying." She looks at me and adds, "There's nothing we can do for it."

"Perhaps we can at least comfort it as it passes away." I sit on the ground and begin to gently pat it. "Maya, could you give it a relaxing light and music show?"

"Sure." She turns on a blue light from the LED cluster built into the center of her chest. From her speakers comes the sound of a mournful cello recording. We sit there like that throughout the night.

Shortly before sunrise, the elderly bird breathes its last. As the sky begins to grow light, I gesture for Maya to fade out the LED and music. I stand up, and we watch some of the other dodos gather around the deceased bird and start to drag it to a nearby stream. The other dodos follow behind as Maya and I make up the end of the procession. Upon reaching the stream, the birds push the corpse into the water, and we all watch it float away on the current. Maya and I sit down on the ground amongst the dodos. I reach out and begin to pat one on the head. It leans in against me, hugs my calf with its tiny wings, and rests its head on my thigh.

"I'm so sorry for your loss, little one," I whisper. Others come to Maya and me and we pat as many as we can. This lasts for more than an hour. Finally, they begin to disperse and go back to their habitat in the woods. Maya and I walk back to the Spectrum in silence.



As the days pass, Maya and I plan which parts of the planet to visit next. We decide to check out a tropical forest on another continent. Upon setting down, we disembark and begin our exploration. It takes me a few days to get used to the oppressive heat and humidity. Once again, we find only small animals, none of which would seem to pose a threat to human colonization. Somehow it feels emptier without the dodos, even though there are lots of other animals. Unfortunately, there is much less food fit for human consumption.

"If we ever have a colony here, crops will have to be cultivated," I point out.

"Yes, that does seem to be the case. Tests will also need to be performed to determine the best crops for this soil and climate before settling here."

After a few weeks of observations and data collecting, I decide that we should move on to another part of this world. It is on the western side of the same continent. Images taken when we flew over show that it is a large, arid area with many canyons. This seems like it will be an ideal place to learn about the geological history of the planet.

Just before Maya and I are about to leave, I get another batch of news from Command Control. Apparently, the peace agreement back on Earth is unraveling. World leaders are urgently meeting to salvage the deal. There are accusations going back and forth that the various governments haven't lived up to their respective sides of the settlement. I wish that they could all visit YB7 and see firsthand the catastrophe that they are flirting with.

"Maya, let's move on to the next location. I'm sick of thinking about what is happening back on Earth."

"I feel exactly the same."



Within a few hours, we arrive at our latest destination. Our timing couldn't have been more perfect. The majestic view at the sunset is breathtaking. Maya and I walk around until the sun is almost gone. With clear skies, we are treated to a beautiful crescent moon and light show of stars. We sit outside the ship for some time. The silence of this place is wonderful. I can hear my heart beating.

At some point during the evening, I doze off. The sunrise wakes me up in the morning. Maya has been watching over me the whole time.

"Sleep well?" she asks.

"Best night of rest I've had since we left the dodos."

Maya smiles and says, "Yeah, I kind of miss them."

"Me too."

"Ready for breakfast?"

"Sure, nothing like a freeze-dried omelet in the morning."

The Spectrum is near a river that flows through the canyon. Tests prove that the water is safe to drink. This is a perfect place to study the long-term geological history of this planet. It is immediately clear that we will be here for a while.

As the days go by, we learn how much XA34 is like Earth. There have been many ice ages and warm periods. The arid location that we currently occupy was once at the bottom of an ocean. Much later, it was a lush forest. It will take years to catalog and understand the numerous fossils we are collecting.

Plant life is sparse, but we do find a few fruits that are not only edible but absolutely delicious.

"Perhaps this could become a thriving resort area," I say in jest. "We could even build a casino."

"This place is so wonderful. It would be a tragedy to defile it with a gaudy casino."

"Good point."

It's amazing how humanlike Maya is becoming. She can see the beauty in things that I thought only living creatures could. She's even developing a dry wit.

Then, at the end of our second week, comes dire news from Josh. All-out war has erupted back home. I can feel the hair on my arms stand up when I learn that there have been several nuclear strikes. The closing of his message is shocking.

"Ian, I'll try to update you when I can. If your location on XA34 is safe, you should stay there until you hear that it is wise to come home. Everyone here fears the worst. Be well, my friend."

I reread the message several times. Finally, I turn from the screen and stand outside the ship. A numb disbelief comes over me. As I stand here motionless, Maya comes over and puts an arm around me.

"Ian, do you want to talk?"

I put my arm around her and respond in a soft whisper, "Yes."

We end up talking for hours. I spend the next day hanging around the ship waiting for news, but none comes. There is nothing the following day, or the next.

After a week, I start to accept why I'm not hearing from anyone. Finally, in a moment of rage, I grab my pistol and rush down to the river. I hear Maya calling, "Ian, where are you going?"

I ignore her and begin to run. She follows me. When I reach the water, I hurl the gun as far out into the river as I can. I see it splash into the water just as Maya catches up with me.

"What did you do that for? You might need it later."

I turn to her and reply, "Maya, I never want to use a weapon again."

She puts both arms around me and responds softly, "I understand." I put my arms around her, and we embrace for a long time.



Three days later, and there is still no word from home. I have been trying to continue working, but can't seem to focus on the job at hand. It feels like I'm walking around in a fog.

"Maya, let's go back to the land of the dodos."

"But we still have a lot of research to do right here."

"I know that, and have every intention to return, but right now I need a change of scenery. I need to get my head back on straight."

"OK."

With that, we make quick preparations and are on our way within two hours. We land at our old spot during the night. When the morning light comes, several dodos come out of the forest to greet us. We pat them and play some music, which we know they enjoy, sit back, and watch them dance.

"It's good to see them so happy," Maya says.

"I'm glad that there still is some happiness in the universe," I reply somberly. Maya looks at me with concern. We sit in silence for several minutes.

Finally, I say, "I need to find out what has happened on Earth."

"You sound like you want to go back there."

"Yeah."

Maya doesn't say anything, but I sense what's on her mind. I ask, "You think the worst has happened and that there is nothing to go back to, don't you?"

"I think that there is a high probability of that, yes."

"Thanks for being honest."

"If you go back and find that there is nothing left, what will you do then?"

"I dunno, maybe come back here. This is a peaceful, livable world."

"Ian, this was always meant to be a round-trip mission, so you have enough supplies to get back to Earth. However, if you find that there is nothing but destruction and can't get fresh supplies, you'll run out of food well before you could make it back here."

"You think I should stay here?"

"I think it would be wise to remain, at least until you receive word to return. There are enough natural resources here for you to live on indefinitely."

"Rationally, I know you're right, but... it's hard to accept."

There is a long pause. After several moments, I ask, "So we should stay here together? That means we'd be stuck living on the Spectrum."

"If you see us as being 'stuck,' then that is exactly what we will be. That however, is not the only way to understand it. If you view it from a more positive perspective, that fate has put us here, then you'll see it as a unique opportunity. It is ultimately something for you to decide. We can continue our research on this planet."

I gaze at the birds dancing to the music. "I would miss the dodos if we leave. They have become like our children."

Maya smiles and replies in a gentle voice, "Yes, they have."

"You are so well built; you will surely outlive me. What will you do after I'm gone, just continue the mission?"

"No. My knowledge base contains details of all of the different major human beliefs concerning an afterlife, including the idea that there is no afterlife at all. But I don't know which, if any of them, are correct. Within me is a program intended to clear my hard drive."

"Yes, that will also reinstall your software, returning you to your original state."

"It could, but I have the ability to deactivate that feature."

"That would be contrary to your programing."

"As I have stated before, I am an artificial intelligence. I decide for myself what to do."

"Yes, but why would you do such a thing?"

"I do not know what, if anything, exists on the other side. Perhaps something, perhaps nothing. Whatever the case may be, I have decided that when you leave, I'll go there with you. That is of course, if it is something you want, too."

I'm stunned to hear this, and I start to feel numb. At first, I don't know what to even say. There is so much sincerity in Maya. She is unlike anyone I've ever known. There is no hidden agenda, no subterfuge. I start to think about all of the failed relationships I've had in the past. Suddenly, I can see why they all failed.

I look at the dodos again. They are so happy and innocent. I turn and look at Maya, waiting for my reply. It feels like a heavy weight has suddenly been lifted from my shoulders. I now realize that this is what I've always been looking for. I reach out and take her hand. Our fingers entwine, and I say, "Then let's stay here together."

2 comments:

  1. Exploring new worlds is one of my favorite types of science fiction. XA34 and YB7 offer interesting contrasts. While the "science" of the tale tends toward the light side, the in-depth examination of the main character is spot on. Love to read more of Maya's continued growth.

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  2. Maya is an interesting and dynamic AI character with a good moral compass. Interesting contrast in this tale between technology used for good vs. technology used for evil. The decision of Maya and the MC to live out their remaining days in their favorite peaceful place is both sad and touching.

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