Copyright © 1987, 2005 by Greg Slade
In human terms, she was huge. The Spirit of Waikiki was the largest mobile object ever created by man. Stretching for nearly a kilometre from the crest of her dust shield to the trailing edge of her radiator fins, with the smooth grace which comes naturally when form follows function instead of fashion. Because she wasn't intended to be admired from the outside, she was all the more admirable for her clean lines which spoke of power and strength.
Of course, even with the rise of deep space tourism, no company could possibly recover the cost of such a ship on passenger revenues alone. Waikiki had most of her payload mass reserved for cargo, but still nearly 1,500 passengers were booked to tour the rings of Saturn while Pan-Galactic Space Lines went about the more mundane business of delivering food, oxygen, and sundries to the colonies scattered through Saturn's moons, and loading fertilizers, fusion fuels, and other chemicals for the inner planets. It took her nearly a year to complete a circuit from Earth to Saturn and back, but the company spared no effort to see that the passengers, crew, and cargo made the trip without tedium, discomfort, or danger.
In human terms, she was tiny. Although she was sixteen years old, she hadn't yet reached 150 centimetres, and she still massed only 40 kilograms. Her age mates, especially those from the colonies, towered over her. Her mother jokingly told her that being born in Earth's gravity had stunted her growth, but she didn't find it very funny, and her blue eyes would flash dangerously when adults would comment on how cute she was with her diminutive frame and her strawberry blonde curls. She wished desperately that her body would catch up with her questing mind, but it stubbornly retained its compact size and girlish shape.
Connie liked to spend her free time, that is, when she wasn't in classes, or having to babysit her little brother, in a little access hatch with a port looking out over most of the length of the ship. She couldn't see forward very well, which was just as well, since the journey in towards the sun meant that the increasing glare would soon make gazing in that direction uncomfortable, and she wouldn't be able to see any of the inner planets anyway. She did have a glorious, if diminishing, view of Saturn. But more importantly, she could spend hours watching the stars beyond this little system, wondering what might be found circling a thousand unspeakably distant fireballs glittering ice-blue in the seeming nearness of the void.
She had to slip away unnoticed to find her favourite spot, since her mother was apt to encourage her to "try to be more friendly" with the other children her age, all of whom struck her as loud, violent, and obnoxious, or else to set her watching her brother while her mother went out on one of her interminable meetings. Her father spent most of his time in his study, writing another book on the glories of travelling in the space he seldom took the time to see. More critically, the crew didn't like passengers to spend time too close to the hull, except in the observation lounges, which she found too smelly and noisy, especially with the most ignorant tourists being "certain" that every new fleck of light was either Earth or an uncharted planet. No, she much preferred her own little corner, although she was certain that any crew member who found her would have her grounded, especially since she shut the inner door of the airlock to keep the light from the passageway from reflecting off the glass of the port.
One day, after dinner, she was staring out into space, luxuriating in the cool dimness of her hideout from the noise and brightness of the rest of the ship. She heard the inner door lock and seal itself, just as the emergency light came on in the hatch. Thinking somebody had caught her and was playing a prank on her, she reached to unlock it, but before she could put her hand on the switch, there was a tremendous concussion. The emergency light faded out, and she blacked out with it.
* * *
In cosmic terms, he was tiny. Barely big enough to generate a measurable gravitational field. In all the vast depths of space, he was as tiny as a speck of dust, or maybe a microbe. Actually a microbe would be a good comparison, since he was living. Nobody ever told him that it was impossible for any creature to live without making use of carbon-based molecules, or air, or water, so he went on living without giving it much thought. He didn't know much about energy conversion or storage, but he did know it felt good to hang around a nice, hot star once in a while.
Nobody had ever told him about Einstein either, or the speed of light or relativity, or why he couldn't possibly travel faster than the speed of light without breaking the laws of physics. So he just went where he wanted at whatever speed he wanted, and he never looked out for traffic cops or radar. As a matter of fact, he wasn't looking out for much of anything at the moment, just cavorting around at twice the speed of light near this nice, hot, yellow dwarf he had just found. At least, he wasn't looking out enough. He was almost upon this odd, hollow metal shell which seemed to resonate with hundreds of intelligences before he noticed it. Even though nobody had told him about inertia either, it did take him a second or two to slow down to examine it. After all, even an intelligent five kilometre asteroid needs a little room to manoeuvre.
As it turned out, that was just a fraction of a second too long. Just as he realized that he was going to give the little shell a gentle nudge, it seemed to emanate panic. And then when he touched it, it suddenly popped open and gas seeped out. And all the intelligences faded out. He was heartbroken. Never in his billion year lifetime had he found another mind. He had seen many amazing things, and even suspected that somewhere, somehow, there was a mind like his, which he was supposed to find. But he had found only clues. Now he felt like his carelessness had ruined his chances forever.
Desperately, he searched through the little shell for a sign of the lost minds. He found all kinds of interesting things; elements in strange proportions, like iron and copper and aluminum, and some oxygen, and hydrogen, and carbon in all kinds of combinations. He found some strange devices too. Some which were almost like minds, and which seemed to be very angry with him. Others which seemed to do nothing but recombine oxygen, carbon and hydrogen in very specific ways. He played with these for a while, and while he admired the ingenuity with which they did their tasks, he could not find out the purpose of those tasks.
The mindlike devices were even more curious, many of them told him they were waiting for instructions from their users, but did not know where their users were or what was keeping them, although they admitted that users did seem to be slow in making up their minds most of the time. Others told him that an intruder had destroyed the "ship", which seemed to mean the little shell. He looked around nervously for an intruder waiting to destroy him, too. Until he realized that his gentle nudge had not seemed gentle to the little shell. He experienced a new feeling to him; guilt. It came over him in horrible waves. He knew he could not undo the damage he had caused to the devices' users, and he felt so badly about it that he had nearly decided to plunge into the nearby star and immolate himself when he felt a stirring from one of the little minds.
* * *
Connie woke to dark silence. The by now familiar hum of machinery no longer mixed with the buzz of distant conversation. She tried opening the inner door of the hatch, but nothing happened, since the power was out, and not even the indicator lights were working properly. At least, they couldn't be working, since they showed no air inside the ship. She remembered one of the crew members boasting of the Waikiki's radar systems and dust shield. "Nothing could possibly get through the hull of this ship," he said. Whoever had locked her in the hatch was having a fine game of it. She couldn't figure out how any of her agemates could figure out how to bypass the power to the emergency lights, or the door controls, so she decided that it must be one of the crew.
Well, she wasn't about to go pounding on the door or flying into a panic. She wouldn't give them the satisfaction. She was curious, though, about what had caused the sudden lurch in the ship, so she peered out the port to see what she could find out. The sight horrified her. As far as she could see the hull of the ship, it was warped and twisted. Seams had sprung all along the length of the hull. The blinking navigation lights were ominously dark. Suddenly, the significance of the indicators on the inner door of the hatch dawned on her. The only air she had was that in the hatch itself. She sat down and began to shake. Her parents, the crew, her brother, the other children, even the adult tourists, all...
Suddenly, she began to pound the walls. "No! It can't be!" She leaned back her head and screamed at the universe. Finally she collapsed, sobbing to the floor, her protests ringing back at her from the bare walls. Then, a new noise joined the fading echoes. It took several minutes to notice the recommencement of a noise which had been with her so long that it became just another unnoticed element in her environment, like the sound of her own breathing. Finally, she noticed its incongruity. The quiet rustle of the air vents didn't make sense in a shattered ship. She put her hand of the inlet. It was real! The air wasn't just leaking out, but fresh air was coming in! Feverishly, she pawed the intercom switch. Some of the crew must have survived! They had at least some of the life support systems running! If only she could attract their attention, they could come and get her out of her suddenly constrictive cubicle, and tell her what had happened.
But she could raise no-one on the intercom. She buzzed every number she knew, and began guessing at the rest. She couldn't find a soul anywhere in the ship. Eventually, she gave up and sat down again. She was just beginning to drop off from sheer nervous exhaustion when the intercom crackled and a tinny, mechanical-sounding voice said slowly, "Your attention please, Ladies and Gentlemen."
* * *
The little mind, he found, was inhabiting a little carbon-based form hidden in a small space from which the gas had not yet escaped. He concluded that the gas was something necessary to keeping the mind alive. That explained all the devices which kept the oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen in the gas at specific levels. He could sense, even as he observed, that the level of oxygen was going down, and the carbon dioxide was increasing. As the little mind became more active, the rate of change increased. Quickly, he began to reroute the gas devices which still worked so that they could keep the space they way it was supposed to be.
He also found out what had happened to the rest of the minds. The carbon-based forms which were in areas from which the gas had escaped were all distorted and growing cold. Many of them were near some of the mind-devices which were so patiently waiting for instructions. Obviously, the minds used the carbon forms to operate, and to communicate with the devices. Apparently, they could not communicate with the devices directly. He spent some time going through the information storage of the mind devices, finding out the ways in which the devices communicated with the mind-forms, so that he could communicate with the mind-form which still operated. There was one form of communication which, although it was difficult for the devices to achieve, seemed to reach the most minds. That was to make waves in the gas in a certain manner, and then decode the waves that the mind- forms made. He chose what seemed to be the most common way of beginning the process.
"Your attention please, Ladies and Gentlemen."
Connie lunged at the intercom. "Hello? Can you hear me? Is anybody there?"
He quickly scanned through the information storage and answered her desperate cries as best he could. "Hello. I can hear you. I am here."
"Oh thank God. I thought everybody was dead. Who are you? Where are you?" She clutched at the intercom as if whoever was at the other end would fade away again if she let go of it.
"Dead?" He paused to search for the information he needed. "Everybody is dead except you. I am outside the ship."
An awful possibility began to intrude upon her mind. It was possible that one of the crew could have been working outside the ship in a vacuum suit when the accident happened, but it could be that this wasn't one of the crew at all. She began to wonder if there might be some kind of space pirates or something after the ship's cargo and the passenger's valuables. "Who are you? Where are you? What happened? Answer me!"
"I do not have a name. I have never needed one before because... there was never anyone else to use it. I am outside your ship, and when I ran into it, it popped open. All of your companions died when the... air ran out." After he said this, she made some kind of noise which he could not decode. It went on for quite a while. A mind-device in the section of the ship for very small mind-forms called it "crying." She would not answer anything he tried to say until finally he asked, "Who are you?"
She stopped, and looked at the intercom. "What do you care, you murderer!"
* * *
He searched through the information storage. "Murderer? Is that who I am?" He began to look through a different set of information, and didn't like what he found out. He was right. He had done a terrible thing when he bumped carelessly into the little shell. He had killed hundreds of mind-forms, people, users, minds. They would never be what they were again. He found a section on what should be done to murderers. Then he asked the little one, "Hello, can you tell me where the nearest police station is?"
She sniffed, still a little shocked at her own outburst. "What?"
"A police station. Where is the nearest one? I don't see anything at all nearby." Some of the information in the banks was a little confusing. It seemed to indicate that police stations and other institutions were quite common, yet he knew from his own wanderings that most of the galaxy was quite empty.
"Well, of course not. The nearest police are on Earth. You must know that! And why do you need police, anyway? I'm the one who's in trouble here!" This was beginning to be a very strange conversation, even for as catastrophic a day as this. But then again, maybe strange conversations were normal on strange days.
"I must turn myself in to them as a murderer. What is Earth, please, and where is it?"
"You don't know where Earth is? Aren't you from there?" She was right, this was definitely a strange conversation. Possibly the strangest in human history.
"No, I don't think I have ever seen it. What is it like?" Try as he would, he could not make sense of the descriptions of Earth in the information storage. Earth seemed to be a large flat place with gas for the mindforms to breathe, but he knew that he had never seen anything like that anywhere he had been. The navigation devices were no help. Since they were designed to find out where the ship was in relation to Earth, they could not possibly help him find Earth in relation to anything else.
"You aren't from Earth?" Could she believe what she was hearing?
He was puzzled. "I have said that."
"Where are you from?"
"I have always been somewhere, but never here before. I come from a lot of places." He could not think of a time when he had not been as he was now.
"Are you from another planet?"
"No. I cannot go too close to planets. They might pull me apart."
"Wait a minute. Let me see you and talk to you."
"You cannot see me?" He couldn't understand how the little one could not see him when he could see her so well.
"Of course not. Come around to where I can see you out the window of this airlock. I can't see through metal walls, you know." She heard groaning metal beneath her, and the ship shook as if it were breaking apart. Suddenly, a huge asteroid began to come into view behind the twisted wreckage. "Oh-oh, look out! There's an asteroid loose out there!"
"That is me."
"What? You mean you live in that huge thing?" The asteroid seemed to grow ever larger as more of it came into view.
"No, I mean this is me. This is how I look."
* * *
Connie sat down and started to think things out. If she heard what she thought she heard, and her mind wasn't just playing strange tricks on her, she'd just been talking to a rock. Not only that, but this talking rock came from outside the solar system. She tried to think of some of the articles she had read about the possibility of silicon-based life forms. As far as she had been able to determine, the basic conclusion was that they could not exist outside of science fiction stories. Impossibility number one. She also realized that she hadn't seen anything like rocket flares or vanes or anything that might suggest a means by which this rock propelled itself through space. It couldn't move without some kind of propulsion. Impossibility number two. Then too, how could it have come close enough to the ship to collide without setting off any of the anticollision radar alarms? Impossibility number three. And, if it didn't come from Earth, or even know where it was, how could it speak English? Impossibility number... no. If she kept adding them up, she'd go crazy before she found any answers. What she really needed to do was get some sleep so she could figure out what was going on. But who'd want to sleep in an airlock?
She looked out the port again. "Hello? Are you still there?"
The voice came from the little intercom behind her. "I am here. I will not leave until I have done what I need to do."
Oh, yes, he wanted to turn himself in. She'd have to do something about that to make him feel better, at least for now. "Well, I'll tell you what. I'll make a citizen's arrest for now, until we find a police station."
He searched through the information in the mind devices. "A citizen's arrest? Very well, until we find some police. What must I do now?"
"Well, uh. I can't go back to earth like this. For one thing I'll need to get some food or else I'll starve to death. For another thing, I need to get some sleep. Did you fix the air conditioning? Can you fix the rest of the ship the way it was?"