Escape Pod 864: Spider (Part 1 of 2)


Spider

by Patrice Sarath

Bifrost Mining Station, June 2063
The plan

I knew the two miners were trouble as soon as they pulled themselves into the bar. They looked around and one, I think it was Carter but you try telling the brothers apart, nudged Rose and nodded his chin at me. They came over and slid next to me, one on either side. We floated there, me pulling at my bulb of cheap station whiskey, trying not to show my unease.

“Hawkes,” said Carter. “Good to see you.” He was close enough now to see the scar under his eye, a reminder of when Rose had tried to gouge his eye out. Family.

“Hmmm,” I said.

Carter was unfazed and leaned closer. “We have a proposition.”

My heart sank lower.

Carter said, “It’s your share of five hundred million dollars and a way off Bifrost.”

I gave him a skeptical side eye and took another drink. Carter and Rose were lifers – asteroid miners who had been out in the dark so long their bones would crumble upon re-entry. There was no chance they had access to the kind of money they were talking about. And I had many good reasons to leave Earth nearly a decade ago, and not so many to go back.

I took another suck at the drinking bulb and thought of whiskey – good whiskey – drunk out of a glass, the way God intended.

“If I were interested,” I said, “And let me emphasize if, just what does this too-good-to-be true plan entail?”

They exchanged the merest smirks.

“Meet us in Rainbow, tomorrow night at 19:30,” Carter said.

Rose spoke for the first time, “Hawkes — you better be there.”

“Aw, come on, fellas. And miss movie night?” I said. They didn’t answer. Instead, they pushed away from the bar and floated out through the hatch. I turned my back, hunched over my drink, my concern deepening. No one crossed the Goucher twins.

#

The Bifrost Corporation (registered Corporate Citizen Entity) Mining Station floated out in the middle of the asteroid field beyond Mars. We called its complex superstructure the spider – arms radiated out from a central wheel, a bulbous control system hanging below the main structure. It looked impossibly fragile, even from as close in as one hundred kilometers. Rainbow was the original arm of the station, used as storage now, where equipment, spare parts, and forgotten station amenities were secured and forgotten.

I watched as Carter diverted the corporate cameras to an empty section of the room and looked over my compatriots.

There was Evangeline Martinez. Chemo had not only taken her hair, it had rendered her once-brown complexion ashen and sickly, and the steroids and microgravity gave her an extra bloat. All of us dark-skinned people, so far from the Sun, tended to pale even with our extra melanin, but she looked like a ghost. I heard that she had given up her fight against the corporation for the right to die at home.

There was Asa Delacort. He had a better poker face than mine, helped no doubt by all the artificial scaffolding in his cheeks, nose, forehead, and chin. The drill he had been setting on a rock had bucked, boosting back into his face, cracking his faceplate and embedding itself into his cheekbone. Plastic bone under skin is all well and good, but the nerve damage was irreparable, so it was like looking at a real-life example of the uncanny valley.

With corporate eyes duped, Carter spoke. “So here’s the deal,” he said. “We have a buyer. We find a rock. All we need to do is spot it, set it, and boost it.”

That’s all?” Asa said. He couldn’t lift an eyebrow, but you could hear it in his voice.

“What’s the plan?” I said.

“Evangeline, you tell them,” Carter said.

“There’s a sector of the region that we haven’t mapped yet, but we know there are a few big rocks. The Corporation doesn’t know what they have – hell, they don’t really know what they have in-sector, because it’s not like the rocks stay still – and I’ve done a little bit of scoping on my own. There’s a good-sized rock about 40 meters in diameter that we can boost with none the wiser.”

“How far away?” I said.

“One hundred and seventy thousand kilometers from Region 5.”

Not too far — maybe fourteen hours by shuttle.

“Evangeline, what’s its roll?” Asa asked.

“It’s a tumbler, but nothing you haven’t handled before, Ace,” she told him.

“That’s where we come in,” Carter said. “Hawkes flies us out to the rock, we set our boosters, and we’re back before anyone knows the difference.” The boosters would course correct the rock so that eight months later or thereabouts, it would show up where it was supposed to. Once the buyer released the funds into our bank accounts, the coordinates would be transmitted, and they would retrieve their rock. Was it stealing if the corporation didn’t even know it had been robbed?

#

Evangeline’s quarters were just big enough for Asa and me to join her. We squeezed around her screen, which displayed the datastream she had yanked from the asteroid scopes and downloaded to the (highly illegal) shadow server. Asa leaned over her shoulder, scanning the quick-running data that showed the asteroid’s size and dimensions and its rough trajectory through the solar system. Evangeline was the best spotter on the station. I wondered how long she knew about this rock. We all had secrets on Bifrost, and this was a big one.

Asa sat down at her monitor, brought up another display, logged in, and began tapping queries. Asa and Evangeline were using a subsection of the server to run their calculations, via an ancient drive with a jerry-rigged connector to the main plant.

“Here,” Asa said at last, and we peered at the still image of an asteroid in a high-res grayscale that showed the pockmarked surface. My heart leaped — and almost immediately sank.

M-class, a big, heavy, metal motherfucker. This would be a fortune in platinum, nickel, you name it. Five hundred million dollars for us was a drop in the bucket for whoever was funding this caper. If, and it was a big if, they were able to cut and sell, they would pull in billions. They could sell bits to buyers all over the world. Hell, they could sell shares to governments. And that was the problem. On the one hand, we were getting paid fuck-off money to pull off the biggest score of the 21st century. On the other, more realistic, hand, I wasn’t sure I wanted to get any more involved in this. And on the third, more pragmatic, hand, I knew if I backed out now, I would be out an airlock without a suit.

“Shit,” Asa said. He must have come to the same conclusion I did, that we were in over our heads. Evangeline, curiously, had a little smile on her ravaged face. She glanced at Asa and he put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed it, a more intimate gesture than just that between thieves. I hadn’t known they were together.

“All right,” I said, abruptly, not wanting to be all sentimental in front of the dying woman and her plastic lover. “Do you have the coordinates?”

“All set,” Asa said. He tapped a few more times, then disconnected the drive from the port and handed it to me. “Do your thing, Hawkes.”

I pocketed the thumb drive, feeling their scrutiny. Evangeline had the same curious half smile. I couldn’t tell what Asa was thinking. I knew what I was thinking though.

If we got caught, there would be no talking our way out of this. Walk away. Risk the airlock. Walk away.

Gravity has an attraction that goes beyond physics. If we pulled this off, I could go home.

How in the hell were we going to pull this off?

#

Bifrost had six shuttles and a fleet of rocket bots that we sent out to asteroids to scrape the surface and bag up material, anchoring the bags to the surface of the rock. Then shuttle crews would be sent out to dock with the asteroid, use the arm to unlock the anchor and pull the bag in, and then haul it back home. When things went wrong, crews would have to troubleshoot, sometimes with a pressurized jackhammer, sometimes with a blowtorch, and sometimes with explosives. Asa wasn’t the only walking reminder of how dangerous it was.

Alone in my quarters, I fished out my own ancient drive and logged in to the shadow server using a cobbled together port connector. Technically I wasn’t stealing a shuttle, I was just borrowing it. And when I brought it back, it couldn’t look like I did anything wrong. The coordinates that Evangeline set were in a big empty part of space. I was searching for anything, any reason that would send me in that sector of the solar system.

I didn’t find it. I found something better. We might actually get away with this.

#

The cop

Station security police Shane Harris pushed herself through the Bifrost Main Concourse on her way to the Security Station on Alpha Arm, orienting herself “up” toward the station central complex by making a mental shift in her perspective. She was shaky and frazzled, a knot of anxiety in her stomach. It had been a bad night. When Shane first came to Bifrost a year before, her hind-brain had panicked at the approach to the spider-like structure. It took powerful anti-anxiety drugs, biofeedback techniques, and station-made vodka to prevent her from waking up screaming every night. If anything, the obsessive thoughts had gotten worse, and Shane fretted that the governor on her brain wouldn’t hold much longer.

Shane pulled herself inside Security HQ. Ray was already at his post with a bulb of coffee. Ray was Shane’s foil — blond where she was dark, short and stout where she was thin and stringy. Calm and balanced where she was an explosive mess of nerves and energy.

Ray nodded at her and pointed at the screens that showed a steady stream of everything happening on the station in all the public areas. Black squares showed where workers had turned off the cameras in their quarters. It was a constant game, fixing cameras and hiding them, resourceful workers finding cameras and breaking them, and so on and so forth.

Shane didn’t like the cameras, but the station was run by a registered Corporate Citizen Entity, and employees were told up front that their right to privacy was forfeit when they signed up.

She strapped in. “What am I looking at?”

“You know how I queried the AI to identify who blanked their cameras with a cross-reference of everyone they were in contact with on the station?” She nodded. “Last night Meredith Hawkes entered Evangeline Martinez’s quarters with Asa Delacort. We couldn’t see what they did, but they weren’t online, according to computer records.” He tapped the screen and slid the image sideways. “And look at this.”

Shane leaned in closer. There were in quick succession still images of Hawkes, Martinez, Delacort, and the brother miners Carter and Rose Goucher. Carter and Rose sitting next to Hawkes at the bar. Carter and Asa Delacort in mining tech, where Asa worked. Evangeline and Rose in the infirmary waiting room. Evangeline sagged in her chair; Rose sat on the other side, his hand wrapped in a cloth. He had been fighting again. The Goucher twins were always starting fights, always in trouble. Ever since Shane had arrived on the station, the twins ran roughshod and always got away with it. She had asked Ray about it once, but he was evasive and Shane was the rookie, so she didn’t push.

All of it could have been coincidence. Shane knew that you could take any of Ray’s interactions and find patterns, but if you put the data back in with all of the background noise, these interactions wouldn’t rise to the level that pinged any alarms. Nevertheless, Shane felt a tingle raise the hair at the nape of her neck. Hawkes was a prickly loner. She did her job, but she didn’t go out of her way to be friends with anyone. Shane looked at Ray. “How did you get the computer to come up with these interactions?”

He looked smug. “Once you train the AI to identify patterns it starts to come up with them on its own. I gave it Hawkes, and it fed me Evangeline; I gave it Evangeline, and it opened up the rest. Here.” He swung the screen toward her and she saw the interconnected lines showing relationships between all the characters. “I hadn’t even realized that Evangeline knew Rose.”

Shane looked closer at the infirmary image. Evangeline wasn’t looking at Rose, but the way their bodies were angled, it was as if they had just stopped talking to each other.

Shane sat back, calculating. “What could it be?” She was more thinking out loud than anything, but Ray answered anyway.

“Doesn’t matter what it is. They’re up to something. And before you tell me that’s not enough to base an investigation on, you know it’s true. Everybody’s hiding something, Shane. That’s true back on Earth and Mars, and it’s true here. Especially here.”

It’s the only reason anyone came to Bifrost. He didn’t have to say it out loud. They both knew it. Her stomach clenched, and reflexively she tapped at her wrist, releasing a dose of meds. If Ray noticed, he didn’t give a sign.

“Just talk to them. Use your cop instincts,” he said, with a reassuring smile.

“Okay,” she said. “Okay.”

#

Shane’s unease only deepened as she approached Carter Goucher in the canteen, trying to ignore her rising heart rate, cursing Ray for his AI patterns. She was afraid of the brothers. They were dangerous. The Corporation didn’t allow sidearms, and it was just as well, since she had no doubt that Carter could disarm her easily, but she still wished she had a gun.

She coughed to get his attention. “Carter?”

The man gave Shane a narrow-eyed, considering look. His eyes were pale blue, and for a moment she was mesmerized. She struggled to look away.

“Rose,” he said sourly. “What do you want?”

“Shane Harris, Bifrost PD,” Shane said. “Sorry about that. Do you get that a lot?”

He just stared at her.

“Um, I wanted to ask a few questions?” she said. With an effort, she controlled her nervous upspeak. “Sorry, I thought you were your brother because his schedule has him off-shift right now.”

He laughed, his mood changed in an instant. “Yeah, I’m Carter. Just messing with you.”

“Well,” Shane said, fighting the urge to smile back. “Since this is official business, can I see some I.D?”

Still with pleased good humor, he pulled out his lanyard from his overalls and presented her with his dog tag. With a firm blink she activated her corneal display. The I.D. flashed its biometrics at her. It was Carter. She handed it back.

“So Carter, I have a few questions,” she began. “We’re just doing a station audit.” She ran through his considerable record ever since arriving at Bifrost seven years before. His expression was rueful, sheepish. Aw shucks, he seemed to be saying. Was that me?

His blue eyes were extraordinary. Pale. Icy. Look away, Shane.

Eyes were trouble.

She struggled to maintain her equilibrium, pretended to look into the distance as if accessing more data.

“So why?” she finished.

“Why what?”

“Sorry, I meant, all that assault and battery — what does it get you?”

He shrugged. “Respect. The station gets what it wants too. You think you’re keeping the peace, but if it weren’t for — for Rose and me, you guys would need a full-time department of a dozen cops to keep peace on this station. You should thank us.”

Sweat trickled down the back of her uniform. She knew he could tell, by the way he smirked.

“Not going to do that,” Shane said. “But we are watching you. You pull anything else, we will haul you in.”

Carter snorted. “You? Word of advice, bitch. Keep your nose where it belongs.”

Fear fueled her anger, even as she struggled to regain control. Don’t antagonize; de-escalate. But she was past Academy 101. “Is that a threat, Carter? Because from where I sit, I can arrest you for that.”

Now he full-on laughed. “Yeah, you? Go ahead. Try it.”
 Her hands began to shake, and she fumbled to tap her wrist, but she had just dosed, and the device only buzzed a denial. They were so close she could see the striations in his ice-blue eyes, the silver in his crewcut hair. This was bad. She knew from experience it would be bad. She needed to get away fast. And despairing, unable to stop the reaction, she was overwhelmed by the image of taking the miner’s shiv from his belt and stabbing it into his eye. She almost convulsed with release, with fear, with her own sickening attraction to the idea.

With difficulty she pushed away from the table, desperate.

“Remember what I said,” she told him, the words coming harsh. She didn’t wait for an answer, left him sitting in the canteen as she made it through the door into the corridor, sweating, heart thudding, her vision obscured by gathering darkness as she was overcome by vertigo. She knew she was getting curious looks but she pushed through the crowd, grabbing for handholds to propel her forward, until she could make it to security HQ by feel and routine. She slapped at the door controls and pulled herself inside, but the panic continued to rise, overwhelming her endocrine system. She was overdosing on adrenalin.

Shane let the door slide behind her and she flailed, her throat working. Ray’s reaction was comical, his mouth and eyes O’s of surprise and horror. He caught her and held onto her, but there was no gravity, and she could do nothing but float. God, that just made it worse, as if everything inside of her was going to explode outward in a violent decompression. He was saying something, asking what she wanted, and she couldn’t speak. He pressed her wrist for her, and this time the pump released her meds. It was less a release than a dulling of extremity, but she was grateful for it. Her heart slowed. Her breathing slowed.
For a long time Ray held her close, even gave her a kiss on the top of her head. It wasn’t sexual at all, and she was grateful for that too. In his arms, she could pretend she wasn’t in zero gee. She felt sleepy now, as she always did after an attack.

“You want to strap in?” he asked, and she nodded. He helped her into a sleep sack in the office, swaddling her tight with an extra pull on the straps.

“I don’t know what I would do without you,” she said, almost asleep, hanging in the corner.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

She wanted to tell him what happened. She was distantly embarrassed that she had made a mistake, but now that was all a long way away. Shane slept.

#

The boost

I climbed into the cockpit and strapped in, the harness pressing against me. It was familiar and comforting. I ran through the rest of my pre-flight checklist, and then keyed my mic.

“Control, B-167 ready for takeoff.”

“Clear for takeoff, B-167.”

The deck crew cleared the shuttle bay and depressurized it. The bay doors opened, revealing the blackness of space, the brilliance of stars, and down below me and to my left, the bright star of Jupiter. I felt the slight tug as the locks holding the shuttle in place released. We floated together, the station and the shuttle, until Control gave the signal and I began thrust. It was so gentle as to be nearly imperceptible. Bifrost dropped away. My stomach roiled — not space sickness, but a remnant of fear. I had dropped my tether, the last connection to Earth out here in the black, and I would not have it again until I returned.

There’s a phrase for it: L’appel du vide. The call of the void. Out here, you could fall forever, always a part of the velvet blackness of space, the roll of Mother Jupiter, distant Father Sol, jewels set in an immeasurable expanse. I felt a moment of yearning, and shivered at that sense of losing control, that one day the governor on my brain would fail, and I would open the airlock and step out.

Six hours later my computer signaled that I was approaching Asteroid ZG—2048Bi179; Ziggy for short. We all had a lot of fondness for Ziggy. It was a carbon-rich rock that was one of the first asteroids that Bifrost worked on, establishing the technology, protocol, and procedures that made the station the trillion-dollar money-maker that it was, a powerful corporation independent of Earth in a way that Mars, still dependent upon the home planet, was not. Ziggy was done for, played out. All that work had destabilized its trajectory, turning it into space junk, and the station had plenty of that to worry about. Bifrost didn’t need Ziggy any more, and it was time to push it away, out of the zone so its unstable path didn’t cause trouble down the road.

Two days ago I brought it up in the pilots’ meeting.

“I think it’s time to let Ziggy go,” I had said, leaning back, my arms draped over the grab bars, legs crossed in front of me, riding an invisible magic carpet.

There were groans of the sentimental variety.

“Come on, guys,” I had said. “Look, if you want, I’ll do it.”

It was that easy.

When I logged in to the control system with my flight plan, I used my official logon, but I had copied over the program with the coordinates from Asa’s thumb drive. Now, it was time to put the first part of the plan in motion. As the rock came into physical view, I released the two small rockets. A few minutes later they embedded into the asteroid, the tiny lights showing on my screen. The computer pinged gently upon impact. Holding my breath I sent the computer signal to the rockets, feeding them the duration of thrust and the flight plan.

Another success ping.

But we weren’t done. I turned back. Behind me Carter’s head popped up. He was fully dressed out in his eva suit. I had manipulated the cameras so they were still on — just oriented away from the tiny sliver of the shuttle cabin where Carter was. He gave me a thumbs up and let himself out the airlock.

He was a tiny figure lost in the deep, barely visible against the field of stars. He eva’d without a tether, and for all that Carter was a deeply flawed human being, I shook my head at his courage. He only had suit thrusters, and it wasn’t easy to guide a suit with them. He soon disappeared into the vastness of space, absorbed into the distance far beyond what the naked eye could register.

Carter was re-setting the rockets from the official course to our very special program. They would turn Ziggy into a small rocket-propelled spacecraft, accounting for its mass and current trajectory. Instead of a gentle course correction, Ziggy was going to scoot on over to the big asteroid, bump into it hard, pulverizing itself in the process, and with a big burst of energy, knock it onto its new track and eight months later, into the waiting arms of the buyer. If everything went right, that is.

Finally, a proximity ping sounded. He was back.

“B-167, what was that?” the flight controller’s voice rang out in the cockpit and I jumped.

“Stand-by, Control,” I said. I muted the mic as Carter activated the outside hatch. When pressure equalized, he slipped inside. He positioned himself on the floor between the row of seats. “Ah, Control, there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong. All systems optimal. Just a random ping?”

“We’ll check it out when you get home,” the flight controller said. “Cleared to return when mission complete.”

I began the long journey back to the station. “B-167 to shuttle control. Mission accomplished. Say good-bye, Ziggy.”

“Good-bye, Ziggy,” everyone chorused. I’m not sure why, but I felt a small pang.

You hate this place. This isn’t the time to get sentimental.

The trickiest part was yet to come.

#

Long hours later, the Bifrost station came into view, first its lights blinking against irregular patches of black, then the reflection of light off its arms, and finally the spidery station itself. Cleared to dock, I eased the shuttle back into the station bay and we connected, the anchor catching with a gentle shudder. I ran through the post-flight checklist with the camera on me while behind me, undetected, Carter wriggled free of his suit and stowed it.

The doors finally opened and I stepped out and down the small steps. “Hey Hawkes,” said one of the ground crew — Nguyen, with a tablet and a checklist. “What was up with that ping?”

“I don’t know. Maybe there was some dust?”

She tsked. Nguyen had permanent lines across her forehead from worry. She took her job seriously, which made her a pain in the ass right at the moment. “Hey Control!”

Control turned from the other end of the flight deck. “What?”

“Ground B-167 for a systems check? I want to check out that ping.”

I waited, barely breathing. The original plan was for the shuttle to be put in queue for its next make ready, giving Carter enough time to make his escape between shifts. Putting B-167 on the assessment list meant that Nguyen and her people would go in right now, which meant that Carter was screwed.

“Dammit, Nguyen,” Control said. “We’ve already got two shuttles on your checklist. Pretty soon we’re going to have to let people jetpack to work.”

“Safety first, Control,” Nguyen said, not budging.

“I agree with Nguyen,” I said, as innocently as possible. “We can’t have a broken proximity sensor in an area of space where there’s nothing to hit. Maybe it will ping somebody to death.”

Nguyen glared at me. “No one asked you, Ziggy killer,” she muttered.

Control eye-rolled. “Nguyen, do you have time for this?”

“I don’t know, Control. Do you have time to write the report after a mining crew dies in a shuttle explosion?”

He hesitated then snapped, “Fine. Run a diagnostic.”

Shit. I watched Nguyen climb into the shuttle cockpit. I waited for the inevitable shouting and questions, but everything was quiet, all the normal hustle and bustle. Whatever they were doing, Carter remained undetected.

“Hawkes?” Control said, still irritated. “You can get out of here now, you know.”

I left without a backward glance. I didn’t know how Carter was going to get out of this, but I could only make it worse if I stayed to watch.

#

A few hours later, grabbing a food pack in the canteen, I saw Nguyen and Carter together. Together together. Scamp, I thought. I wondered if Rose knew, what with Nguyen being his ex. And then I wondered if Nguyen knew which brother she was with at the moment. And then I wondered if she cared.

#

Hail Mary

The news of Shane’s attack spread throughout the station like wildfire, but the gossip was mostly concern for her well-being. Mostly — every grapevine has rotten grapes. Still, Shane was touched by people coming up to her and asking how she was, and offering remedies for space sickness and vertigo. It was nice to be cared about. She didn’t tell anyone that it wasn’t space sickness but her old enemy that overwhelmed her, flooding her brain with erratic signals until all she could see was blood and torn flesh. Many therapists had told her about unwanted thoughts and anxiety and stress, and she agreed with everything they said, but in her inner core — when the night was the darkest and there was no sleep to be found — it was the attraction that frightened her even as it sickened her.

Shane and Ray didn’t speak about what happened. If he told admin that his rookie partner was crazy and unreliable and needed to go back to Earth, there was no indication — nothing from control, nothing from sickbay, except for an e-mail that said the next time it happened to please come to them and they would take care of her. After several days of flinching whenever there was a message alert from the station server, Shane calmed enough to go back to police work.

And after all that, Ray’s pattern had dissipated almost as soon as it appeared. The brothers kept their own company as usual and Hawkes was never seen with any of the others again. Delacort and Martinez were connected, but even they had nothing more than a tangential relationship with the twins or with the pilot. No matter how often Shane re-ran the query, Hawkes was out of the picture.

“So I was wrong,” Ray said, when Shane told him about her findings. “You were right. It wasn’t important. Don’t worry about it.”

Shane wasn’t an idiot; she knew Ray was eager not to have a repeat of her anxiety attack. But perversely she couldn’t let it go, no matter how much she wanted to. “Right after I talk with Carter, he’s no longer part of a cluster?”

“Look,” Ray said. “Maybe they were planning something, but you put the kibosh on it. That’s even better, if you think about it. It’s a big administrative headache to arrest people on this thing. It’s better for everyone if we made them forget all about whatever they were planning.”

“You don’t want to report it to admin?” Shane was still skeptical.

Ray made a face as if he were considering. “No,” he said at last. “It’ll just complicate things. You did good, Shane. You stopped it. You kept things calm.”

He was trying to make her feel better, but she admitted he had a point. Shane went about her business, but she was always aware of the original Bifrost Gang, as she dubbed them in her head. She knew better than to let Ray in on that. Still, one night she woke up in a sweat, hammered by another anxiety attack and bloody thoughts, and she knew that sleep would be futile, even after dosing. Shane unwrapped herself from her sleep sack, and pulled her terminal over. Typing in her password, she decided to run a different kind of query. While she considered, she rubbed her eyes and lifted her thick pony tail off her neck, letting the air cool her skin. Suddenly inspired, she keyed in a set of commands. Did they have any shared connections on Earth? How would Ray’s program work with a database of 10 billion names?

The AI flashed a single name, as if the only thing it could come up with was a Hail Mary pass.

Agnes St. Germaine.

“Who?” Shane said out loud. She ran a quick search on the station roster, and came up empty. She went back to the AI screen. There were no connections radiating off the name. The name just was there. No context. Shane muttered and ran the program again.

This time the AI flashed: No results found.

But I just saw — “What the hell?” Shane said. She tried again; same result. The maddening name had disappeared. She ran the name separately through the InterSol criminal database, painstakingly waiting through the time lag for the system to validate her request, and then for it to spit out a response.

No results found.

Shane was getting angry now. “Goddammit,” she said, glaring at her screen. “I saw that name. I saw it.” She glanced at the small, round clock on her built-in desk; a mid-20th century antique. It was six a.m. She called Ray.

#

Ray was a good sport. He met her at the canteen before their shift, and they huddled over their breakfast — coffee, reconstituted scrambled eggs, hash browns, and spinach from the grow tank, floating like sleep-tousled genies. While they ate she told him what she had done.

“What would make the AI decide to make up a name? Can it even do that?”

Ray shrugged. “I guess. I mean, the whole idea is that it’s a self-learning environment. So it’s allowed to be creative. It doesn’t think but it does extrapolate.”

“And then it decides to stop giving me the name?”

“Yeah, that’s weird, but again, it might have decided that it gave you the wrong answer the first time, and figured well, that was a low-value name, so…”

“Ray, that’s not a very useful program.”

‘Look, we don’t know if that’s what it did. All we know is it gave you a name, and then withdrew the name. I mean, did you ask it what it meant?”

Shane stared at her breakfast, steaming in its pouch. If the station was a spider, the AI was a spider’s brain. “I don’t like asking it things,” she muttered.

Ray rubbed his eyes. “Okay, look. Do you want me to ask it why it came up with that name?”

“I guess. Sure. Thanks.”

“Shane –” he took a breath. “You know, you don’t have to stay. Some people aren’t cut out for deep space. Maybe, you know, you should think about going Home.”

Shane squished her eggs and toast together and didn’t answer.

Some people weren’t cut out for Earth, either.


Host Commentary

This week we bring you “Spider” Part 1, by Patrice Sarath. She is an author and editor living in Austin, Texas. Her novels include the fantasy books The Sisters Mederos and Fog Season (Books I and II of the Tales of Port Saint Frey), the Books of the Gordath (Gordath Wood, Red Gold Bridge, and The Crow God’s Girl) and the romance The Unexpected Miss Bennet. Her short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Weird Tales, and Year’s Best Fantasy. To find out more about Patrice Sarath’s novels and short fiction, visit her website at www.patricesarath.com. She blogs about fantasy, science fiction, movies (including the ones she’s made), and Jane Austen. Please stop by and saw hi.

This story first appeared in The Way of the Laser anthology, published by Vernacular Books in June 2020.

It’s narrated by Tatiana Grey. She is a New York City based actress of stage, screen, and of course, the audio booth. She adores traveling and counts her lucky stars that acting and dancing have taken her all over the United States, to Montreal, Vancouver, Ireland, and Holland… but she loves coming home to New York where it all started. Equally at home speaking heightened language in a corset, in a leather jacket spouting obscenities, and as a dancer she has been compared to such dark, vivacious heroines as Helena Bonham Carter, a young Winona Ryder and Elliot Page. This depth and facility with multiple genres garnered her a New York Innovative Theatre Award Best Featured Actress nomination for her work in The Night of Nosferatu. Her facility with accents has landed her quite a few audiobooks and numerous on-camera roles including the role of Evgenya in the award winning I am A Fat Cat. Tatiana is a proud member of Actor’s Equity Association.

Commentary comes next week with part 2!

About the Author

Patrice Sarath

Patrice Sarath

Patrice Sarath is an author and editor living in Austin, Texas. Her novels include the fantasy books The Sisters Mederos and Fog Season (Books I and II of the Tales of Port Saint Frey), the Books of the Gordath (Gordath Wood, Red Gold Bridge, and The Crow God’s Girl) and the romance The Unexpected Miss Bennet. Her short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Weird Tales, and Year’s Best Fantasy.

To find out more about Patrice Sarath’s novels and short fiction, visit her website, where she blogs about fantasy, science fiction, movies (including the ones she’s made), and Jane Austen. Please stop by and saw hi.

Find more by Patrice Sarath

Patrice Sarath
Elsewhere

About the Narrator

Tatiana Grey

Tatiana Grey is a critically acclaimed actress of stage, screen, and the audio booth.  She has been nominated for dozens of fancy awards but hasn’t won a single damned thing. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.  See more about Tatiana at www.tatianagrey.com.

Find more by Tatiana Grey

Elsewhere