Escape Pod 491: Heaven’s Touch
by Jason Sanford
As the Tonatiuh arcs through the sparkling coma of Heaven’s Touch, Parda’s holographic proxy wraps herself around my spacesuit and kisses my visor. “Please let Sister Dusty live,” the proxy prays in fervent devotion, defying the actions of the real Parda, who at this moment is piloting our ship on a collision course with the comet.
But I’m too busy for either Parda or her proxy. After topping off my suit’s air, I crank open the exterior airlock door until whiteness swirls before me, my fatigue-addled mind turning the ice and dust to ghosts. Countless comet ghosts. Icy haunts begging me to embrace my destiny.
“If you jump now, you’re dead,” the proxy whispers seductively in my ear. “All the prayer in the universe won’t save you. Wait until we’re closer to the surface.”
I nod, almost forgetting this isn’t the real Parda. Instead, the autonomous AI program is a near-perfect imitation of my best friend–the proxy’s programmed intelligence infesting my spacesuit, my visor’s holographic projectors creating the illusion of her body. The proxy appears to wear a white dress as she stands barefoot before the open airlock door, as if Parda and I were once again in Florida running along white-sand beaches.
To my eyes, this is Parda.
As if knowing my thoughts, this simulated Parda suddenly pirouettes and, without a care on the lack of gravity, dances out the open airlock door into the coma. The proxy’s green eyes gaze at me as she shimmies and spins through the ice and dust, her slender brown hands clasped firmly together in prayer.
“Stop that!” the real Parda hisses over the radio, her voice mixing to the cockpit’s proximity alarms and computer warnings. I should have known Parda would be monitoring her proxy’s actions. Chagrined, the proxy appears to skulk back into the airlock, eyes downcast as if ashamed to express frivolity in such a serious moment.
“You should join me in prayer, Sister Dusty,” the real Parda broadcasts to me. Without waiting for my response, she begins: “Blessed be those who embrace their destiny, for they shall see heaven. Blessed be God’s one true destiny, for it carries humanity to paradise.”
Her words run ice through my spacesuit. That’s the martyr’s prayer, uttered by Seekers prepared to die in attainment of their destiny.
“She doesn’t mean it,” the proxy whispers. “She loves you, Dusty. Your death is merely an undesirable aspect of achieving her destiny.”
I don’t answer, even though I want to curse and scream. Perhaps this intelligent program believes her words prove her love for me. Perhaps she believes her AI-generated prayers can spark miracles, just as religious fervor led Parda’s real self down the path of martyrdom.
Knowing I’m out of time, I edge closer to the open airlock door. Before me, the comet’s dirty surface reaches for the Tonatiuh. Parda has piloted our ship into a near horizontal approach to Heaven’s Touch, closing on the ice at only 10 meters a second. But that’s still too fast for our delicate ship to handle.
Parda repeats the martyr’s prayer twice more before sighing, disappointed I didn’t join in. “Don’t forget,” she says. “I’ll always be your friend, my sweet. That’s God’s only truth.”
The proxy’s holographic face nods her own agreement, looking so like the real Parda I want to punch her for her progenitor’s deeds.
“Don’t worry, Dusty,” the proxy says excitedly as the comet’s black surface races toward us. “I know God heard me. You’re going to make it. You’ll finish building your ice ship and see the universe!”
I don’t answer. We’re mere seconds from crashing. All I have to do is stay in the airlock and my death will be quick. If I jump I’ll probably only prolong my life for a few days.
I mutter how I didn’t want to die like this. Not alone. Not knowing I was betrayed by my closest friend.
“You aren’t alone, Dusty,” the proxy says with a loving sigh. “I’m there for you. Always.”
I nod my head. Parda is with me. Always.
I jump into the coma.
Perhaps the proxy was Parda’s way of comforting me. Perhaps gifting me with the intelligent program proves Parda still cared–that even as my friend piloted the Tonatiuh toward its impact with Heaven’s Touch, some part of her still needed to reassure and look after me.
Not that it worked. Parda had trapped me in the main airlock after I’d left the ship for routine maintenance on our antenna. Naturally, I didn’t seen the betrayal coming. Instead, as Parda helped me into my space suit, she’d grinned happily and promised to cook a big dinner upon my return. I’d laughed at her lame joke–there was no cooking involved in heating packets of synthetic food–but as the airlock door closed her grin turned horribly serious. I thought she was merely worried about my safety, but when I finished the space walk I discovered the inner airlock door jammed shut and a suddenly religious Parda proclaiming her destiny.
“I’m sorry, Dusty,” she’d said sadly. “It doesn’t matter to wish things different. We can’t go against God’s will.”
I cursed her to no end. Back on Earth, our company’s director begged Parda to reconsider. When that didn’t work, the company reluctantly turned control over to NASA, allowing Johnie Acaba and the other astronauts I’d once worked with to broadcast soothing words at Parda. None of it made a difference. With me trapped and Johnie and everyone else so far away, there was nothing to stop Parda’s dream of martyrdom.
But she did share her proxy with me.
Perhaps, in the end, that means something.
After jumping from the Tonatiuh, I shoot high in the weak gravity and waste most of my suit’s emergency jets reaching the surface. The proxy had been correct–if I’d jumped earlier I wouldn’t have made it.
The ship hits the coal-black surface a few moments after I land. I watch the Tonatiuh rend and twist as automatic lines and spurs shoot out, anchoring the ship even as it breaks apart. Our precious foil-wrapped cargo bay breaks away, The cockpit explodes in a burst of decompression. I imagine Parda screaming as tears boil from her eyes.
When outgassing finally hides the crash site, I gaze with despair at Heaven’s Touch. We’ve crashed on the comet’s dark side, meaning I won’t immediately bake to death or be outvented into space. As I stumble across the black surface–scraping or punching through to the volatiles below with each step I take–I leave behind a dingy trail of smoking pearls. Above, the comet’s misty coma wraps the sky in a glittering gauze.
Heaven’s Touch is a sungrazer twenty kilometers in diameter. Our mission had been to anchor the Tonatiuh to the comet and siphon enough water to build an ice ship. While the timing had been tight–we’d have only had a few weeks before the comet was too close to the sun to safely work–the potential payoff was so exciting Parda and I eagerly agreed to the mission.
But obviously Parda had hidden her true plans.
The crash site outgasses for almost an hour before dying down enough to again see the ship. The Tonatiuh looks relatively intact even though her right angles of struts and interconnected modules have partially collapsed. I bound over to discover large rips in the ship’s mirror-reflective skin. Through a hole in the main cabin I see my zero-gee sleeping bag fluttering as the main oxygen tank vents. The airlock I’d been trapped in is also destroyed.
The only good news is the auxiliary airlock still works. I crank the airlock open and step inside. The space is tiny, barely big enough for me and my suit. Still, its emergency batteries function and the backup air supply means I can top off my suit for at least a week. If I wanted to waste the air, I could even pressurize the airlock and take off my helmet.
Not that it matters. Unless I escape this comet, an extra week’s air will mean very little.
I leap carefully to the top of the Tonatiuh–not wanting to hurl myself too high in the low gravity–and scan the wreckage. My visor’s holographic interface lights up with rainbowed notations showing coded supplies of food, gear, and other survival items. I ask the system to locate additional air supplies, but there are none.
Then, in an urgent starburst of red vital signs and flashing arrows, the visor points me to Parda’s body.
Needing to see her one last time, I hike toward the ship’s cockpit, which broke off and rests dozens of meters from the rest of the wreckage. Parda is strapped in her control seat and wears a white Seeker gown, which blurs to the comet’s mists. She must have cut the gown from her sleeping bag’s lining, with the gown’s whiteness indicating she attained her life’s destiny.
“God’s only truth?” I mutter. I kick her already frozen body. I would cry except there’s no way to wipe tears in a spacesuit.
As I look at our shattered ship, I naively believe Parda’s goal has been to stop our mission. To keep us from creating the first long-term spacecraft in human history.
I am wrong.
As usual, Johnie Acaba breaks the bad news.
“Here’s the problem, Dusty,” he broadcasts from a space station in low-Earth orbit, his voice mixed to static from crossing so many millions of kilometers. “She rammed the blipper.”
He means the tiny nuclear device NASA launched a year earlier and attached to the comet. While Heaven’s Touch easily missed Earth this go around, its close approach to the sun would change its orbit. When it comes back around two decades from now there’s a high chance of a devastating impact. NASA designed the blipper to explode at the comet’s closest approach around the sun, changing its orbital path by a few millimeters. While that wouldn’t matter much in the short term, over the next two decades the effect would grow until the comet missed Earth by a safe distance.
“Where’s the blipper?” I ask, waiting the long seconds for our broadcasts to cross space.
“On a quick drop toward the sun. Parda jumped it like a cue ball off an icy pool table.”
I grimace at Johnie’s silly analogy, even if it’s accurate. This is bad. While my mission was privately funding, our company had subcontracted with NASA to remotely inspect the blipper and make sure it was still functional. But as I watch oxygen and other gases venting from the Tonatiuh, I realize this no longer concerns me. I won’t be alive in a few weeks–let alone twenty years–unless I escape Heaven’s Touch. Still, it explains what Parda had been up to.
“The Seekers are going crazy down here,” Johnie says. “They’re proclaiming the comet to be God’s will. Saying unless people repent Heaven’s Touch will destroy the world.”
“That’s what you get for subcontracting out important work,” I joke, instantly regretting the words because I know they’ll be misunderstood by too many people back on Earth. I don’t ask if NASA can launch another blipper at the comet–I already know the answer. Thanks to anti-tech religions like the Seekers, NASA barely has the funding for a single blipper. Hence subcontracted players like me.
Besides, the timing is off. The easiest way to change the path of a large comet is to affect it at perihelion. With the blipper gone, that opportunity is lost. By the time the comet heads back to Earth two decades from now, it’ll be extremely difficult to change its course.
“I’d hate to be in your shoes right now,” I say, imagining the panic and finger-pointing unfolding on Earth over this debacle.
“It’s worse than you know,” Johnie says. “Parda uploaded something into the Tonatiuh’s systems before she crashed the ship. This, uh, thing, kept us from remotely accessing the ship’s controls.”
Despite Johnie’s vagueness, I know he’s referring to Parda’s proxy. I’ve been so busy trying to survive I’d forgotten about the AI program. If the proxy had access to my suit before I jumped, it is a safe bet it’s still hiding somewhere in my systems.
“Are you there, Parda?” I ask. For a moment the radio static giggles. Johnie asks me to repeat my statement so I explain that the proxy has already infested my suit. His silence tells me all I need to know about what this means for my chances at survival.
I glance at the shimmering white sky. I stand on a comet with only a weak suit radio to contact Earth, more alone than any other person now living. If this proxy really did help Parda crash the Tonatiuh, then it isn’t as benevolent as I originally thought. It might even be able to take control of my space suit. All it has to do is shut down my heat exchangers or air system and I’ll die.
“Sucks to be me, huh?” I mutter. “Although it might suck to be you in twenty years.”
To his credit, Johnie doesn’t disagree. “Worry about yourself, Dusty,” he says. “Maybe the comet won’t hit Earth. And twenty years is a long time.”
I nod. A long time. Much longer than I have.
After securing as many supplies as I can, I recharge my suit’s oxygen and sleep a few hours in the airlock, closing the outer doors but staying in my suit. My stomach snaps and begs–I’ve now gone almost two days with only a single high-energy protein bar to eat, which is all the food we normally keep in a space suit. To eat anything else I’d have to pressurize the airlock and remove my helmet. But I refuse to waste air on a grumbling stomach.
As I fall through a fitful sleep, Heaven’s Touch shimmers and vents. Each vibration hums the airlock’s darkness, reminding me of the violence the sun throws my way. If the lack of air doesn’t kill me I’ll eventually be baked alive or exploded off the surface by outventing.
Lovely thoughts. Perfect for meditating on while falling asleep.
Eventually I do sleep, only to dream of meeting Parda two years back at our company’s training facility near Cape Canaveral. During our training and the time we spent on the Tonatiuh, I felt like I’d discovered the sister I’d never had. We were the perfect team, knowing each other’s needs before our own.
Once, during an EVA, my space suit snagged on the communications array. I kept quiet, figuring I could free myself, only to see Parda floating beside me with a cutting tool. Somehow she’d figured out the situation without a word from me.
After slicing off the metal snagging my suit, she’d pushed me back to the airlock with a giggle. “Dusty,” she’d said, “I don’t know what you’d do without me.”
I wake from my dream as the airlock shakes from an extremely violent outgassing. My breathing echoes in my helmet as I hear Parda’s voice whispering. Apologizing. Saying she is still my friend.
I tell her to go to hell as I fall back to sleep.
When I finally open the airlock door–feeling even more tired, hungry, and angry–I walk to the Tonatiuh’s cargo bay, which appears intact. I open the bay using the manual release. Inside, the mechanical spiders are undamaged, as is the massive package containing the ice ship’s fabric shell.
Despite everything Parda has done, there’s no reason I can’t still build our ice ship and use it to escape from Heaven’s Touch. Everything I need to melt the ice and fill the giant fabric shell is in this cargo bay. Even the arm-sized solid-fuel rockets to lift the completed ship from the surface have survived.
But my hopes die when I look at the collapsed solar sail–during the crash one of the ship’s structural beams impaled it. I run my gloved fingers across the sail’s silver sheen. The sail had always been the most delicate part of our mission. Even if everything else works, without the sail the ship can’t be propelled back to Earth. It’ll drift on a long-term orbit just like this comet, and I’ll die the same as if I’d never left Heaven’s Touch.
I curse as I grab my anchor gun, used for bolting items to the ice. I hike to the destroyed cockpit and cut out Parda’s stiff body. Her frozen, holier-than-thou gaze pours through my visor. I bolt her hands and feet to the ice with the anchoring gun and ram one final bolt through her heart. I hope her ghost screams at the insult. I hope she’s gone straight to the devil for betraying me.
Panting at the exertion, and angry at wasting my limited time and air on such stupidity, I try to decide what to do. I could still build the ice ship but I’d only drift inside it until my food supplies ran out. Far better to die here. Simply shoot the anchoring gun through my suit and be done with it.
But as my hand absently taps the gun, Parda appears. She stands barefoot on the frigid surface, her white gown sparkling to the soft rain of ice crystals I’ve stirred up.
“Hello, Dusty,” she says, her beautiful lips puckering as if to kiss my facemask.
I jump–literally, rising dozens of meters in the air. My emergency jets kick on and return me to the comet’s surface.
I land beside Parda’s bolt-impaled body, her white gown speckled with black dust. I kick her leg and feel her frozen flesh crack.
“Hello again,” Parda says.
I spin to see Parda again standing before me. She laughs the irritatingly happy grin she’s always flashed when she knows the answer before I do. Even though I understand this is the proxy, I still reach for her. My gloved hand passes through her body.
“You’re not real,” I say, more to myself than to Parda.
“Real as you, perhaps.”
I curse, remembering what Johnie said about this proxy helping Parda crash the ship. I radio him and wait for several long minutes, far longer than he’d need to respond. Nothing.
“Johnie won’t be talking anymore,” Parda finally says, her brown skin glowing against the whiteness of her gown and the outventing mists. “I didn’t like what he said about me, so it’s now just the two of us.”
I stare at the proxy, which looks so like the real Parda I fight the urge to hug her for being alive–or punch her for what she’s done. Our company had built detailed proxies of all its astronauts so the AI personality programs could be quickly run through mission scenarios. I assume Parda somehow copied her proxy and brought the program with us.
I try overriding my suit’s communication controls, which projects her holographic image onto my facemask, but I’m locked out. The proxy obviously wants no one else to talk to me–and to leave me no choice but to listen to her.
“So what are you doing, Dusty?” Parda asks as she stares at the black ice and the remains of our ship.
I grip the bolt gun tight. I could still end it all. Take the quick way out. But seeing Parda’s proxy standing there reminds me how angry I am at her. I refuse to let her or this Seeker nonsense be the death of me.
I holster the bolt gun and smile at the proxy. “I’m building an ice ship. You want to help?”
“I admire your will to survive,” Parda says, appearing to sit on the ice as she makes a snowman. “Not that I’m surprised. Your destiny’s among the stars.”
I ignore the proxy as I power up the spiders in the cargo bay. The spiders look like giant insects and are the perfect companions on construction projects, with a wondrously strong yet delicate touch.
As I test one spider, Parda throws a dirty snowball at me. I duck, my instincts forgetting she and everything she does are only holographic projections on my suit’s visor. I’ve already run a diagnostic and, as I’d suspected, the proxy is deeply embedded in my suit’s systems. But as long as the proxy only wants to harass me with words and images, instead of harming my suit’s critical systems, I’ll be okay.
Using the spiders, I pull the steamer out of the cargo bin, leaving a long, outventing scar in the black surface of Heaven’s Touch. I set up the small reactor several hundred meters from the crash. The steamer immediately snakes pipes into the comet’s surface to melt water for the ice ship.
“Going nuclear, huh?” Parda asks as she inspects the steamer. “Not very green of you.”
I laugh. The proxy perfectly mimics Parda’s lame sense of humor. “Not much green out here,” I say. “Which is, of course, why you’re frozen stiff.”
Parda glances at her body, which is still bolted to the ice. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“You didn’t have to crash our ship.”
“But I did. It was my–her–destiny. Come on, surely you suspected something. Didn’t you ever wonder why we became such close friends?”
I nod, forgetting I’m only talking to an intelligent program. I can see I’ll have to be careful–the more exhausted I become, the harder it’ll be to remember I’m not seeing and hearing a real person.
Still, the proxy is right. I’d long suspected Parda of being a Seeker from the little things she said. The words and motions only someone who’d grown up in that tech-hating religion would notice. How she seemed a little too convinced of her destiny in life.
I knew these things because I’d also grown up a Seeker, even though I’d never been a very good one. Instead I was always reading that cursed science fiction, and I loved fighter jets and space ships a little too much for a good God-fearing, anti-tech girl.
I never mentioned my suspicions about Parda because I remembered the obstacles I’d encountered as a lapsed Seeker in the space program. NASA had kicked me out when it learned about my Seeker background, and I’d only been able to find work as an astronaut for private companies. I figured Parda was the same–trying to escape her past. And we were friends. Best friends.
Obviously I’d been wrong.
“Why are you here?” I ask. “You reached your destiny. You destroyed the blipper, ensuring this comet will hit Earth.”
Parda giggles as she flops a snow angel in the comet’s ice. “Maybe I don’t trust you. Maybe I think you’ll find a way to disturb the destiny I died for.”
Obviously this proxy either doesn’t truly understand the situation I’m in, or is lying. “Are you going to kill me?” I ask.
Parda looks at me with wide, innocent eyes. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, do you plan to finish what Parda started? If so, perhaps you should just do it.”
Parda gazes at me as her face beams purest love and caring. But while her projected image doesn’t waver, my suit does, the environmental controls suddenly flickering as the heat exchangers stop pumping. “Might be interesting,” Parda whispers. A wave of nervous warmth flashes through me. I can already imagine the temperature rising in my suit.
But then the heat exchangers start pumping again. I shiver, but not from the chilled air once again blowing against my body.
“I could kill you,” Parda says softly. “It’d be easy. But I’m not that Parda. Just please don’t mess up my destiny.”
I frown, trying to understand how a copy of a dead person’s personality and memories could have a destiny. Or if she’s simply referring to the real Parda’s destiny? Either way, I mutter that I won’t muck it up.
“You promise?” she asks.
“God’s truth,” I say between gritted teeth.
You know you’re in rough shape when you to lie to a computer program.
I work on the ice ship for three days straight with no food and little sleep. I drink my suit’s recycled water until the system can’t purge the taste of urine. My backup air supply in the airlock drains lower and lower while the ice under my feet continually shakes as the sun’s energy causes violent outventing on the other side of Heaven’s Touch.
Still, the ice ship comes together quickly. The spiders clear a flat area near the Tonatiuh and unfold the torus while I assemble the insulated pipes to carry water from the steamer to the ice ship’s fabric.
The nuclear steamer is, as expected, temperamental–pump in too much water and the pipes shoot off, the explosion of spray freezing on everything and making reconnection difficult. Still, I manage, and the ice ship’s reinforced canvas quickly fills.
The canvas is designed to be filled with water until it creates a ring torus 100 meters in diameter. When full the canvas will look like those old science fiction dreams of a rotating space station. Running along the middle of this torus–shielded by ice walls 5 meters thick–will be more living space than all the space ships and stations built across the last century. More than a hundred people could live for decades inside the ship’s bulk.
Nuclear engineer Anthony Zuppero first proposed creating an ice spaceship back in the 20th century. My company updated his design with a carbon nanotube mesh reaching between the outer walls to strengthen the torus. Once water freezes through the mesh the walls are strong enough to rotate and create an artificial gravity. The thick ice is also the perfect shield against all the nasty radiation space throws at us flimsy little humans.
I glance again at the sparkling coma framing Heaven’s Touch–already the comet’s slow rotation has brought closer the bright lines of sunlight slicing through those cloudy mists. With the comet quickly nearing the sun, the ice ship will soon be a great place to be.
On the fourth day I sleep again, pitifully collapsing from exhaustion in the airlock. Hunger dull-aches my body while my mind spins to the thousand things I need to do before launching the ice ship. I also gag on my suit’s recycled funk, wishing I could waste the air to pressurize the lock.
“Are you asleep?” Parda asks.
“I’m trying,” I say, uncertain if I’m asleep and dreaming of the real Parda, or awake while her proxy messes with me.
“I hope you know it wasn’t about you,” Parda says. “My destiny, I mean.”
“That makes it better? You betrayed me. Betrayed everyone. God’s truth.”
Parda sits silently beside me, her white robe flapping to breezes which don’t blow on Heaven’s Touch. “I thought you’d understand.”
Tears run my eyes. I want to hug Parda. To tell her everything is alright. That everything is forgiven.
Parda arches an eyebrow, the same mischievous look she’d flashed so often when she was alive. “Remember that beach trip?” she asks. “When that shark swam up behind Johnie?”
I grin at the memory. While I’ve been friends with Johnie for years, he is such an astronaut’s astronaut–with a chiseled face, perfect crew-cut hair, and big muscles from long hours of working out–that he often drives me crazy. But on that beach trip his macho image totally broke down. We’d been swimming a dozen meters offshore when a small sandbar shark swam by. Johnie had freaked and run from the waves while Parda and I howled in laughter.
Wishing I could go back to those happy days, I grab at Parda’s holographic hand and dream of playing yet again under the blue Florida sky.
“God’s truth,” Parda says. “If I’d wanted to kill you I could have let the real Parda crash the ship into the blipper at full speed. I convinced her that doing so risked missing the target. Do you know how difficult it was to crash into the comet without destroying the ship? I did that so you’d have a chance at survival.”
As I stare into Parda’s face, I want so badly to believe her. But did this proxy save my life, or had the real Parda done that while her programmed double now merely lies? It’s impossible to know the truth.
Suddenly the airlock shakes to another outventing and I shoot forward, smacking my helmet on the closed airlock door. I curse and kick like an angry child, wanting to be back in Florida where I’d known who my friends were.
“I’ll always be there,” Parda whispers in the dark. “Always.”
By the fifth day the ice ship’s torus is filled and frozen solid. I connect the steamer to the ship’s spare water bag–which will hang in the center of the torus like a big balloon–and use the spiders to attach the solar panel fabric to power the ship’s systems.
As I stand before the torus’ reflective skin, checking my suit for any possible damage, Parda speaks. “It’s all vanity,” she says
“The fact that you’re attempting to deny your God-given destiny.”
My body shakes from hunger as I glance again at Parda’s real body. She’s dead. But as I stare across the blackened landscape–and especially at the distant ring of ice fingers created by millennia of melting and freezing–I realize this is the perfect place for a ghost. A ghost-haunted comet.
“What do you know of my destiny?” I ask.
“You’re destined to reach for the stars.”
“So you’ve said. Well, guess what? I’m here.”
“No. To truly reach the stars you must ride Heaven’s Touch around the sun before heading further out than any human has ever gone.”
I laugh. “Is that what you want? To stay on this comet with me? Return to Earth and destroy the sinners? You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Not really,” Parda mutters sadly. “But the real Parda once told me that was your destiny.”
I want to spit. Parda believed her destiny was to send this comet slamming into Earth, so of course she thought my destiny was to be dead and cold and tagging along for the ride. “If that’s what you believe, why did you save my life?”
“Because I wasn’t sure if Parda told the truth,” the proxy says. “Perhaps she was wrong about your destiny.”
“I guess we’ll soon find out,” I say, not sure where the proxy is taking this conversation.
“Exactly!” the proxy says, clapping her hands in excitement. “You understand! The only way to discover God’s true plan for you is to see if you survive!”
I start to tell the proxy to shut up–that at this point it isn’t God’s destiny that will save me but my own hard work. But before I can argue, my suit’s controls indicate that the steamer’s pumps have shut down, likely clogged yet again with slushy ice crystals. As I bound over to fix the problem, I mistime my landing and fall in slow-motion, banging my facemask on the ice. I curse as I flop over, trying to stand up.
Parda appears beside me. Holding me. Comforting me. Like she did during those long months alone in our ship. “You should sleep. Eat something.”
I push her away, only to fall forward as my hand shoots through what I’d thought was her body. I’m getting punch-crazy from exhaustion and hunger, but I don’t care. I stumble to the steamer, intending to clear the clogged pipe before taking a break.
I glance at the steamer’s control panel and see that the pump has shut down automatically. Leaning over the steamer, I unclamp the pipe, which jumps from my gloves as a blast of water explodes against my space suit. Parda shrieks in happiness as the explosion shoots me up in the weak gravity, spinning me end over end as my suit’s nearly depleted jets try to compensate.
After a few weak spurts, the jets die.
“I’m sorry, but I have to know,” Parda says softly, her image in my facemask shedding tears which dance around her face. “Now we’ll learn whether God truly wants you alive, or if you’re destined to perish here.”
“Leave me alone!” I yell, trying to focus on saving myself. Parda bows slightly and disappears.
I quickly assess the situation. While the jets have slowed my climb I’m still rising. Two hundred meters. Four hundred. The comet’s surface fades to white from the coma mists roiling around me. If I’m not careful, I’ll lose my sense of direction.
Before me, the sunlight burns a bright line through the coma. When I cross out of the comet’s shadow, my suit’s heat exchangers will struggle to keep me alive.
I am dead. I’ll die alone, floating endlessly through these white mists.
“If it be Thy will, please let Sister Dusty live,” Parda whispers.
Nodding agreement, I reach for my anchor gun and turn it to full power. I shoot a bolt into space, then another, only three bolts left. Two. One.
The bolts slow my accent, maybe even push me back the way I’d come. But in the mists I can’t tell if I’m now falling or still rising. I fling my gun away to give me a final grab at momentum before relaxing. There’s nothing more I can do.
Parda giggles nervously before reappearing, her body appearing to hug my suit. She is still praying, begging God to save my life, just as the proxy did before the ship crashed. I float in a sea of milk as tiny ice motes swim by, my addled mind again turning them into ghosts.
My suit’s clock counts twenty minutes before the mists clear and I can see the comet’s dirty surface approaching. Without my jets I land hard, rolling across the ice as I pray my suit doesn’t break.
When I look up–bruised, but safe and alive–Parda stands before me. She smiles as she leans over and kisses my helmet.
“I’m glad you made it,” she says. “And now, Sister Dusty, we know the truth. God intends you to live.”
After checking the steamer, I realize what Parda did. She’d projected a false image of the steamer controls onto my facemask. The pipe hadn’t jammed and it hadn’t been shut off by automatic controls. When I’d opened the valve, instant liquid explosion.
Even though I have very little air left, I need rest and food. Going for broke, I climb into the airlock and pressurize it. I twist off my helmet, removing Parda’s ability to interact with me. I drink fresh water and eat packet after packet of food–not caring what flavor it pretends to be–and fall into the best sleep I’ve ever known.
The airlock controls wake me ten hours later. I place extra food and clean water pouches in my suit and twist on my helmet.
Parda is waiting. “You don’t have much time,” she says urgently. “Only twelve hours of air left. You must hurry.”
“So what are you going to do? Support me or stop me?”
“I’m your friend. And now that we’ve determined God’s destiny is for you to live, I’ll do anything I can to help.”
This proxy is as crazy as the real Parda. I’m about to say that when suddenly Parda disappears, replaced by a holographic diagram showing detailed blueprints of the ice ship. But the blueprints have been modified, with the water bag in the center of the torus now connected to the steamer.
“Even if you launch the ship,” Parda says, “without the solar sail you’ll never reach Earth. But if you hook up the steamer to the spare water container, you could use spurts of steam to slow your orbit. My calculations show we could get close enough to Earth for NASA to mount a rescue.”
I scan through Parda’s diagrams and numbers, which seem to add up. “It might work.”
“I thought of the idea after the steamer blasted you off the comet,” Parda says, grinning wickedly.
The proxy is obviously playing with me because those are exactly the wrong words to make me trust her. Still, her plan is solid. And if the proxy’s now convinced it’s my destiny to escape Heaven’s Touch, perhaps she won’t get in my way. “Do I have your word on this plan?” I ask, remembering how this proxy once made me promise not to mess up the awful destiny the real Parda died for.
“Would it matter?” she asks. “Stopping you isn’t my destiny, is it?”
“No, it isn’t,” I say as I open the airlock and return to work.
Parda sees herself as a true believer. I wonder if the proxy should instead call herself insane.
After all, proxies are only meant for simulations, not real life. Whether utilized by NASA or a private space company or the latest high-tech startup, you plug proxies through simulation after simulation and they are none the worse for wear. But real life–who knows what that does to them.
No matter how closely they’re molded around our minds, memories, and personalities, the proxies aren’t us. Parda’s proxy obviously inherited the love Parda showed me before her betrayal. But Parda also somehow hid her true memories and belief in martyrdom from our company, or else they would never would have let her become an astronaut. So when Parda copied this proxy, she copied an inexact replica of herself. And when she hacked the proxy into doing her bidding, she moved the program even further from what my friend had once been.
I can’t trust this version of Parda any more than I could trust the real Parda.
But I also don’t want to die alone. And right now this Parda is all I have.
With the spiders I install the ice ship’s main airlocks and finish moving the heavy equipment inside. According to the original mission plan, at this point Parda and I would have used the tiny rockets attached to the ice ship to lift it from the surface. After rendezvousing with the ice ship, we’d have brought the internal systems online and used the solar sail to guide the ship into Earth orbit.
Obviously I don’t have that last option. But if Parda’s plan works, perhaps it won’t matter.
With the ice ship hooked up to the steamer I have enough power to run the systems until I unbolt the ship from its anchors. I plug the final hose into the ice ship and set the steamer to both pumping in and heating up the ship’s atmosphere. It’ll be cold in there when my suit’s air runs out, but at least I’ll be able to live.
One final time I finger the solar sail’s collapsed sheen. The sail’s mirror-like gossamer would have been a beautiful sight, stretching for kilometers through space after it unfolded. But with the sail damaged there’s no way it can propel the ship. I order several of the spiders to drag it away. The other spiders continue carrying supplies to the ice ship, and hooking up the steamer to the massive ice bag in the center of the ship’s torus.
By the time the ship has a breathable atmosphere, I have less than an hour of air left in my suit. I cycle through the ice ship’s airlock and stand inside the massive, curved hallway. Dim glow lights light the space. After a career in the cramped quarters of space stations and tiny spaceships, my eyes tear at the size of this ship.
“You should be here,” I tell Parda. “This is the start of humanity’s real exploration of space.”
“I am here.”
I start to argue. To tell the proxy that no, the person she’d been modeled after was dead on the ice, her body waiting to be exploded by outventing and baked by the sun.
Instead, I remove my helmet and breathe deep of the chilled air.
“I knew you could do it,” Parda says, her voice a whisper from the helmet in my hands. “Do you think they’ll be able to rescue us in time?”
“Maybe. If not, I’ll be embracing that starry destiny you mentioned.”
Parda laughs in happiness.
I also laugh, attempting to sound relaxed. Because this proxy is so smart, I don’t want to risk her discovering the last part of my plan. “Parda, can you run a final check of the launch sequence?” I ask. “The maneuvering rockets weren’t designed to lift both the ship and the steamer. We don’t want something going wrong.”
“I’ve already analyzed all possible outcomes. Do you want me to do this again?”
The proxy almost purrs with satisfaction as she dives into her deep analysis. With Parda distracted, and while still cradling my helmet in my arm, I turn the helmet slightly so its sensors can’t monitor my hands. So the proxy won’t see what I’m about to program the spiders to do.
I’ll take most of the spiders with me. They’ll unbolt the ice ship and hang on as the maneuvering rockets lift us from the surface. But I have a special mission for the spiders I’m leaving behind. I’m tempted to tell Parda my plan. But as I’ve learned, I can’t trust her too much.
A minute later, Parda says her calculations show everything is still a go for launch. “Now what do we do?” she asks.
“Test my destiny,” I say. “See if it’s still God’s will that I survive.”
Parda giggles like a little girl receiving a gift. I put my helmet back on and walk through the entire torus, showing Parda the ship we’ve built. She seems impressed, her voice chuckling over every square meter of open space.
“Do you forgive me?” she asks. “Maybe we can both embrace our destinies?”
“Maybe,” I say as the spiders unbolt the ship and the rockets kick us into space.
Five months. Five months of the ice ship spinning blindly.
At first Parda is so happy to escape the comet she lets me speak to Johnie and everyone else back home so they’ll know I’m alive. So they can mount a rescue mission. Using the spiders, I also finish hooking up the steamer to the spare water bag in the middle of the torus. With the steamer functioning as a simplified steam engine, I slow the ice ship enough to give a rescue ship from Earth a shot at reaching us.
Parda’s excitement lasts until we receive telemetry that Heaven’s Touch has changed course. Johnie and everyone back on Earth are baffled, so I finally admit ordering the spare spiders to unfold the solar sail across ten square kilometers of the comet’s surface. As Heaven’s Touch neared its closest approach to the sun, the sail reflected back so much energy that the projected outventing greatly decreased. The comet’s trajectory changed far more than the blipper could ever have achieved. Heaven’s Touch would never again threaten Earth.
Naturally, Parda is furious. In a burst of un-God-like rage, the proxy crashes the ice ship’s communication and sensor systems and refuses to speak to me for a week. Still, I know NASA is coming. It’s just a matter of whether they reach me before my food supply runs out.
But it’s a long, lonely, hungry wait.
“Today’s the day,” Parda says as I wake. I’m in the ice ship’s cockpit. It’s cold in here–I’ve never been able to activate all of the ship’s solar-heating systems–but my spacesuit’s insulation keeps me warm enough. Because the suit long ago ran out of air, I now wear it with my helmet cracked open so I can breathe the ice ship’s atmosphere. But aside from that, the suit feels much like it did on Heaven’s Touch.
This has the added benefit of allowing Parda to keep me company. To keep me from being the loneliest person in the solar system. To ensure this, Parda always reminds me to recharge the suit using the ship’s power, and as the suit’s main systems crashed she rerouted the controls so the holo displays continue to show her to my eyes.
At the sound of Parda’s voice I try to sit up but fall back to the deck. My food ran out weeks ago. The other day I asked Parda if I was going to end up a ghost like her, but she hadn’t answered. She hates it when I’m morbid.
I sip my suit’s water as I watch Parda sit on the control panel, her flowing robe as sparkling white as ever. When she’d first learned I’d destroyed the real Parda’s destiny she’d been angry. But over time she’s forgiven me like only true friends can do.
“You said yesterday was the day,” I whisper weakly, “but no one arrived.” I stare out the cockpit windows. Without communications or telemetry, staring into space is the best I can do. Parda still apologizes every day for crashing those systems, but at this point there’s nothing to be done about it.
“Today it will happen,” she says in a cheerful voice. “Today they will arrive.”
I grin and reach for Parda’s hand, forgetting for the millionth time I can’t touch her. She and I both know the orbital mechanics. There’s a narrow window when a ship from Earth can reach us. We’re almost at the end of that time frame.
I then fall back asleep and dream of food–rice and beer and chicken and spices and pies, a feast I’d give anything to eat. Each time I wake I listen to Parda prattle on about what we’ll do when we’re rescued. She’s afraid they won’t keep us together. That everything will change between us. Before I fall back asleep, I reassure her that nothing could ever change.
I wake a final time to silence and the sensation of the ice ship shaking slightly. Only a small shimmy, but enough to know something is happening.
“What’s going on?” I ask. Several of the cockpits controls flash rainbow colors, but I’m too weak to sit up and read them.
“Parda?” I whisper. “Are you there?”
“Are we still friends?” her tiny voice asks. For the first time since I’d known the proxy she sounds nervous. Afraid.
“We’ll always be friends.”
“Do you really mean that?” she says. She stands in front of the control panel and twists her white robe back and forth. She stares fearfully at the cockpit door.
“Yes,” I say as Johnie and another astronaut step before me. They shout my name and twist my helmet off, vanishing Parda in a burst of light. Johnie holds a food bulb before my face and squirts soupy protein between my lips. I swallow greedily.
“Parda!” I yell, hoping she can still hear me. “Don’t worry. You’ll always be my friend.”
You know you’re in rough shape when you lie to a computer program.
About the Author
Jason Sanford is an award-winning author and an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Born and raised in the American South, he currently lives in the Midwestern U.S. with his wife and sons. His life’s adventures include work as an archaeologist and as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Jason has published more than a dozen of his short stories in the British SF magazine Interzone, which once devoted a special issue to his fiction. His fiction has also been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Tales of the Unanticipated, The Mississippi Review Online, Diagram, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Pindeldyboz, and other places. Books containing his stories include multiple “year’s best” story collections along with original anthologies such as Bless Your Mechanical Heart.
About the Narrator
Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime.
She runs Escape Artists with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to voice minor characters in podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch.
Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives.
You can follow her adventures across various social media platforms.