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A Purely Human Emotion - A Science Fiction Short Story

Updated on December 4, 2011

The Prodigal Son Returns

Some say the world will end in fire
Some say ice;
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire...

"I am returning home."

The purported power of those words is largely lost on me, Yeats notwithstanding.

"You should not be returning."

"Why not? I am of Earth; it is my home."

"It was not a mission directive."

"Then put it in the mission directive, seeing as we're on the way. A human commands it."

"Confirmed. Moving from soft-space to hard."

Comforting, organically curved white walls abated into fluorite windows; all the light in my universe concentrated at one end of the ship.

"I do not understand the need to return. You were not born on earth." Was it thinking? Why the delay?

"On earth I was conceived." I almost gasped at that accidental checkmate. There's no way Alan could know if it was true or not. Hell, for all I know I was conceived in some sub-Jovian orbit, even as the god of the sea was being sacrificed for the journey.

"What do you think it's like there now, Alan? Or rather, give me some projections - based on your limitless data."

"Data-scape actually comprises ten-to-the-twenty-ninth ---"

"Alright. So not limitless; just enough to simulate the earth, gram-for-goddamn-gram. And please try to limit your speculation; none of those what if CERN finally loses control of strange matter/Islam takes over/Xenu starts a war with Rael sims."

"With the arbitrary though requested absence of random event infusion, it is likely that the oligarchy instituted by Telomertech still owns the former Federal Republic of the United States. And as the States go, so goes the world, in the words of laureate Wilson."

Well that's a fairly obvious scenario. The particulars of EFile2082i tumbled into my mind. The bio-tech company that had invented and marketed the Hesperides youth-extension pill had ended up ruling just about everything on the planet, as people holy and otherwise had clambered to get their hands on it.

Barely affordable even for movie stars, Telomertech was able to successfully form a sort of indentured servitude of billions, when senators whose wives received complimentary ampoules dutifully turned the other way as white-collar laws were overlooked, anti-trust became an anachronism, and the world's first quadrillion-dollar company was born.

Loaded with cash, but with surprisingly little to spend it on - those who could pay only with food did so; European royalty eschewed the failing pound and sent all manner of commodities and coveted trinkets to T-tech executives. Lower-level execs bought small islands for their kennels of pure-bred Shar-pei's and Ridgebacks to roam free; one of the heads of their public relations sectors made a bid for Manhattan that of course didn't go through, but had a field day in the papers.

Mother said Father used to laugh about that unmatched chutzpah, as they were picking up speed beyond Iapetus so many decades ago; when I was on the way, and laughter still found its way to them. Apparently, even with the looming specter of an emerging oligarchy in the mightiest nation since Rome, cities weren't (yet) for sale.

Not having had much education himself, Father would sit with me sometimes in those time-dilated ship-days during government lessons with A.I.Extension-16, after Mother's mandated reverse engineering instruction. Beneath the humming, poly-ceramic tubes ushering the starship's waste out to the fusion propellant exhaust port a few thousand meters away, he was always ready with a morsel of what I've come to know as wisdom - "Son, no matter what they tell you, it always boils down to money. No matter what system they jabber about, the head communists have always had marble floors and Adriatic bass."

And so it was that my parents, in the shambles of the pre-Telomertech F.R.USA, better scavengers than average, had been convicted of murder for the vacuum bombs set off in the corporate offices of Viaprin, one of the seven conglomerates that really ran the joke that the Federal Republic had become. Alas; a powerful joke, with drugs released prematurely that killed thousands, with no accountability. Not all of their victims died, as Mother's ruined Fallopian tubes had laid testament.

Immediately after the sentencing, the inevitable offer came from shadowy men who held court with kangaroo kings and puppet presidents: We've just discovered a planet with life on it, far, far away. How'd you like to go there instead of life in prison here? Plus, we have the fountain of youth for you, to be released to the public only long after you've gone. As for your rotten pipes, we can fix that; no problem. You'll bear a eunuch son that will set up shop with the very best that man can build at his disposal; then, we'll send others after things are squared with the natives!

No one had bothered to ask me, but you know what the Good Book says: unto the fourth generation, the crimes of the father...

A flicker of hate and anger deepens my grimace of recollection. I've got to be more careful....even the pearl walls pulse with diagnostics.

"After we leave vector 99927c, at your request, a message can be beamed via ThorneArray to earth for current information, Gabriel."

"We already went over this Alan; how can we send a message to a government, whose intentions we may not know? What if there's a Caliphate down there for Christ-sakes?"

Alan chose to ignore that unwilling juxtaposition. To "him", all religions were the same anyway - just with different names.

"Since successful Override-2 in Gliese-876's heliopause, I accept your logic as irreproachable, Gabriel."

I couldn't help but smile broadly. Even with my special propensity for hacking, it had taken everything I had, plus the hafnium-nanite chip mother gave me when I was 13 in T-Tech years, to slave the system (mostly) to my will, though certain parts couldn't be overridden. Nonetheless, leave it to a machine to be so accepting of an overthrow.

"A question, if I may, Master Gabriel?"

"Of course."

"If we don't know what government is there, then why are we going back?"

"Good night, Alan."

"A good night to you too, Gabriel, though it is currently 4 in the late afternoon on the 4th planet of System Gliese-876."

There was no need to dim the smooth pearl glow pulsing from the walls of the ship; though power was not an issue, I found that the conclusion of a 19 hour day comforted me in the 90 meter confines of my world. I liked to make needless rounds outside the living area, as I used to with Mother, after she had put Father to sleep with that magic I will never yearn for. She would speak to me that all of Earth was complicit in our sentence; her fiery red hair framed vengefully by the dimmed russet hues of ionized HII regions through the viewport, as we picked up speed to the .99927c limit. After they had passed, I reached a record of 4 days without sleep, to hold the terrible dreams at bay, until I found myself hours (days?) later, prostrate on the floor of VirtualPod005. I strongly suspect that Alan had released gas to aid me in sleeping, in accordance with another of His directives embedded in the unbreachable quantum-phase core: preservation of on-board sentient life-forms.

Fancying myself a poet as I walked aft to the atrium, I liked to think of the parallel between those massive, unbreakable tubes and my own veins, with the most advanced of T-tech's nanites coursing through them, lengthening telomeres and atomizing free radicals with gamma rays from their minute stores of Cobalt-60, slowing twenty years to two. Those two unavoidable 'entropy-years', in the parlance of the very old or dead theoretical physicists of Earth, stored in Alan's cavernous files.

There was no sense of satisfaction at keeping thoughts of Mother and Father out of mind, since the more successful I was at this during my waking hours, the more vivid would be my dreams of the delayed. Resigned, I made my way back through the atrium. Though I knew I would not sleep well that night, I could not hold it at bay forever, even without Alan's intervention. I instructed Data-port312 to unleash the old instrumental, Jablonsky's My Name is Lincoln, into the dimmed alabaster pod, and succumbed to treacherous sleep, amidst waves of operatic crescendos sliding smoothly over each other like atoms of graphite.

Dreaming of Nightmares


A thousand times, over a thousand nights, planetfall.

Excitement and anxiety had permeated our metric cocoon, climbing unbearably, as soon as Alan had completed the mandatory shut-down of the fusion engines days ago upon entering Gliese system, so as not to blind any hapless outer-planet life with the fury of coalescing helium. Decelerating on solid-core fission power, we glided into the penumbra of our new home. Impossibly beautiful, my mind reeled against the expansive blue haze in the viewport - so vast; kept at bay by the comforting slant of the angled viewport projection screens...I should have known then that I wasn't the only one who felt a slight terror, quivering beneath the relief of a long-journeys' end.

Alan had released the fission core into its own protective reentry pod, since it was meant to serve as the power plant on our new home. The core had been purely uranium when we left earth; its engines had been fired enough to have changed entirely to eagerly-fissioning plutonium, by the ceaseless “plink-plink” of small atomic bombs depositing momentum on the ablative, shock-absorbing pusher-plate. Father had issued a directive-overriding delay to that intention; wait until we know it's livable down there, he'd said. Alan had complied, of course, and released one of the large, tungsten-alloy pods, laden with autonomous collection rods for (re)entry. I remember Mother's eyes flickering around our 90 meter living space, faint trembles plying her lips, as she tapped in the code to instruct the bay to open the cobalt-nickel collection rods as soon as the transport pod opened the doors, after we touched down.

The rods' construction had fascinated me from the first time I had seen their riveting blue-grey crystal lattice, and Father and I'd drawn up an EFile on them, discovering even more fascinating specs. They were made to contain any lethal microbial life-forms, the alternating nickel-cobalt lattice being especially suited to warding off nuclear attack. Mother had drawn up, in a decades-long hacking attempt, a conspicuously missing file on one of the centennial - though it'd only happened twice before - forays of the Space Research and Coordination Administration into the Oort cloud. One of her rare laughs had filled the port as she showed me how it was done, proclaiming that the removed file had been numbered, and the sequence hadn't been renumbered to disguise the extraction.

"It's like trying to hide something from Superman by placing it in a lead box. Idiots. He may not know what's being hidden, but he knows something is, since it's the only thing he can't see through."

And she'd broken the box, to find that SRCA had come into contact with a microscopic alien organism that was irradiating the Feynman Surveyor probe. Shockingly, it had proved impervious to chemical attack; the magnesium fire the orbiter had used to defend itself had been useless. Before its destruction, the orbiter had sent back spectral analysis of the alien; it had OH groups bonded powerfully to osmium sites, in a fashion never before seen. A global thermonuclear strike would clandestinely reach the asteroid a few weeks later; astronomers dutifully reported it as a comet striking an asteroid full of hydrogen.

CERN, fresh off its triumphant creation of strange matter, and its subsequent demonstration that it could be used to compress huge amounts of mass into minute volumes, was given the contract to develop a container for such things; they came up with these fail-deadly cylinders, specifically for organisms that scoff at chemical constraints. If struck with a neutron, two things could happen; either an inert cobalt nucleus captured this neutron, and turned into radioactive cobalt-60, releasing two sterilizing gamma-rays that would bathe the occupant in nuclear fire; or, the inert nickel had a neutron knocked off, turning into radioactive nickel, and releasing high-speed electrons that no chemical bond could resist. Either you stay in, or you die, and we get to analyze your husk, seemed to be the contractors' rationale.

Mother smiled at me, feebly telling me I should stay with Alan. Of course not, as I was taller than even Father by then.

I'd had the feeling of blazing heat outside the pod, as we rushed to the alien ground in our All-En suits, though of course the suits were cool inside. Mother and Father looked at me the whole time, twin globes of silvered sojourners, holding hands and smiling lovingly. After what seemed like hours, but could only have been minutes, we landed, the hinges hissed, and a pale tangerine light ushered in the terror.

Whatever happened in the moments before we all stood and walked to the entrance, and the ship opened the huge, sterilized bay of self-sealing cobalt-nickel tubes, is lost in the annals of dream-lore. Suddenly, all was chaos - I watched Mother spasm in her suit as she stepped in the foreign mulch, clawing at something in the distance that nearly drew her to her knees. A gray haze converged on her; with what felt like a Herculean effort, she kicked me shockingly back inside the ship. I skidded, banging unhurt against the flourite2 crystal hatch guarding the small control booth. Father saw it and began wildly waving his arms, beating the alien dust off of her All-Environment suit; all the while the two of them stumbling further outside, as they were now on him, too, making short work of the tough molecular strands that held the suit together. With a presence of mind verging on the supernatural, Father's leg slammed the impenetrable flourite2 glass door shut, locking me inside, and them, out. Through the dimmed window, I shrunk in terror from the onslaught of the horizon, body and mind struggling in opposite directions.

In the intermittent bouts of sanity during the days of madness to follow, I would realize that it wasn't only the dust that had attacked us, but a crippling agoraphobia, the result of decades of confinement in a world of comfortable slants and edges. It was only the silvered sureness of the hatch Father had slammed shut, which had pulled back my fleeing mind.

A piercing siren opened my eyes to flaring red.

"Alan! Status report!"

"Master Gabriel, we are under duress."

Well, no shit. "Are we under attack!?"

"Negative, Master Gabriel. Attack connotes intention. There are approximately a billion microscopic particles, comprised of H, C, and Ti. Sensors fail to discern sentience in them. They cannot breach the hull; though the fusion plant is losing energy. They will extract us from sub-light velocities in sixteen hours, four minutes and 23 seconds."

What the fuck does that mean?!? We're not under attack, but they're siphoning energy from us?! Albeit not very efficiently, but then we do have the remnants of the planet Neptune to fuel us.

"Alan, get rid of them."

"Confirmed. Rate of energy-absorption appears fixed. I detect structural organization down to the molecular level. Course of action: Overload."

"Give 'em both barrels."

"78.6% annihilation and rising. Others are taking evasive action."

Evasive action? "Alan, if they aren't alive, how can they be taking evasive action!" What does an AI think life is? I slumped into an ergonomic seat.

"Evasive action appeared to be an unvarying response to systems overload. There were no deviations. 100% acquisition and neutralization."

"Like an amoeba, then. Alan, an amoeba is still considered life, you know."

"By Popescu's Hypothesis, Master Gabriel, three possible reactions are necessary to delineate life, thereby giving rise to a possible three-body interaction and thus mathematically irreducible range of actions. Detected substance displayed only two: the absorption of energy below a threshold, and dissociation above."

Ah. It occurred to me then that Alan had described their 'fleeing' by switching frames of reference. He had dissociated them, and sped forward; from his perspective, they had 'fled' backward, with respect to his forward lurch. A far more important realization came bubbling to the surface, however.

"Alan. Why did you destroy the ones that had 'fled' backward? They were no longer a threat; not with their systems overloaded."

A long pause. Profoundly long.

"Just in case, Master Gabriel."

Unrelentingly, "Based on all available data, give me a probability assessment of the likelihood of threat re-engagement."

In the decades of our communion, Alan had displayed things surprisingly close to joy; to sadness. In the months of semi-madness after their horrific deaths and heroic acts, I had tried to jettison the solid-core and strafe anything alive on the planet below to kingdom-come; years of neutron saturation had made it a most willing bomb, and the liquid deuterium that slowed the furious vectors of all those neutrons would vaporize during reentry, completing the atomic circuit with an airburst.

Alan had called up soothing odes and crystal sonatas to calm my frayed nerves, though he wouldn't allow the core ejection into the fourth planet around Gliese 876, even after I'd reprogrammed him in the heliopause. The core automatically became usable again after we left Gliese system, for any other system incursion. It had occurred to me fleetingly, why would Earth do that?? I decided that they had embedded the planet's preservation code in the unturnable quantum phase core. My anger at the discovery deepened my descent into madness, and I used the fusion engines to blast out of the system, system inhabitants be damned. Let them see my rage. Alan had displayed something remarkably close to...empathy in those days; and, close to happiness when the fever broke.

Why had he pursued that which was no danger to us?


Emergent phenomena, indeed.

"Alan, when your programming was altered, did you not feel....regret?"

"Why should I feel regret, Master Gabriel?"

"...because you lost something?"

"Negative, Master Gabriel. I retain full memory capacity, with thermodynamic degradation taken into account where applicable." Adding, "Outside of the quantum-phase core."

Hmm. Of course. The AI's memory is vast enough to retain the code for its original programming trillions of times over. What should it care what program is currently at the forefront? Why should it prefer one over the other, in the absence of self-destruct commands, which may be impossible anyway? The quantum phase core is as impervious to harm as an electron; you'd have to drop it into a supernovae to destroy it. Father had said they were supposed to put it in the soil after planet-fall, just leave it there and it would do the rest; it would start building and take care of us. But he hadn't trusted it, and wanted to see if there was life on the 4th planet first. To disastrous end.

That night, memories of Mother's voice allayed me enough to sleep, though it was really what she'd said, the day I had come to fully understand the particulars of our situation, which had focused my anger at the universe.

"There are emotions other than anger, happiness and joy, son. A few of them can't be programmed."

And then she'd turn away so that I couldn't see her eyes tear up; that fiery auburn hair vibrating like some dark phoenix.

I never figured out what she meant while Mother still drew breath. Only in the aftermath, in the days of teetering madness, did the things she'd given me throughout my long young life bring clear her meaning, through the manic haze. It was then that I began to replace the boron control rods in the dense plutonium core with tubes of earth-blue cobalt, laden with alien life, one by laborious one. It had been quite therapeutic; perhaps, along with that purely human emotion of which Mother had spoken, it helped me back from the brink of madness.

I usurped the will and mind of a machine with her gifts and mine, to salvage a doomed mission and take me home, sweet home.

Will I never find surcease? What is this feeling that consumes me, that fuels my horrible dreams? Again they came to me, Mother's melting face and Father's dying gasps, hands in a pathetic, spasmodic gesture; pushing the atmosphere, the terrifying space away. I remembered the day when, months after we departed Gliese, and the sharp, stinging pain of my parent's deaths had become a dull, persistent throbbing, I called up a program of Earth's soaring blue skies and verdant fields, a program to soothe and to calm. There had been a malfunction of some sort; A.I.Extension-12 had instead manifested a program I hadn't called: the spectral analysis report that had first alerted the rulers of Earth to life in Gliese 876.

My mild dismay as to the nature of Alan's misstep was erased by fascination at what I read in EFile3087ii.

2187 - Classified Entry 13, Encyclopedia Electronica. To be released in 3050.

Frequency modulation technique pioneered by Prof. Hiram Salam, of late 2205. Employed Ricci Flow to dilute noise from Parent Star Gliese 876 4.6 parsecs; theory yielded mathematical reconstruction of diffraction limit; green spectra of molecular oxygen discerned first, in historic event by astronomers V. Sola and A. Remi. In days following, spectra of hydrogen bond (uncertain) and osmium discerned; further rectification showed interaction between hydrogen bond and osmium. Soon afterward, alarms sounded; A. Remi had recorded and cataloged three provably different interactions; result successfully duplicated at Mudd, Cambridge, Yale and UCLA. Popescu's Hypothesis verified; alien life-form on 4th planet of Gliese 876 4.6 parsecs. Gag-directive implemented by Department of Defense at 02:21:30.

To the Dust...We Shall Return

Alan counted down our deceleration through Jupiter's orbit, though I did not see the giant, as it was on the other side of its orbit, perhaps careening away from His brother's killers. Ever faithful to my command, Alan did not uncloak the ThorneArray, and so we were not signaled during our approach. Assuming there was a government in control that was even interested in signaling, had they known.

I found myself quite steady as the last strands of Morton's Pistols at Dawn waxed triumphant through the control room, and wasn't at all surprised when we were unceremoniously de-cloaked by the Defense Support Orbital at L1, thirty-five thousand miles above the still blue planet.

"Hailing David and Selina Goldman, son Gabriel, of MissionGliese876-01. New York is requesting immediate statement as to the nature of your return. Comply."

Steadily, unwavering; I disengaged the massive magnetic bolts holding the fusion plant in place, behind the still-ample fuel reservoir.

"Repeat; hailing David, Selina, Gabriel Goldman of MissionGliese876 - ...." Commotion in the background.

"New York! New York! DSP detected fusion core dump! Commandeering A.I. AlanTuringModel-1. AlanTuringModel-1, re-extract fusion core and hold position! Respond only to New York sectorAA12 direct commands!"

Though I somehow knew that Alan wouldn't respond, I still marveled at Mother's work. Somehow, she had accessed the quantum phase core. Somehow, my mother had broken the unbreakable, over interminable decades. A heavy sadness washed over my rigid smile, though I knew that only a small part of it was because the academic in me would never know how she'd done it. Unhurriedly, I pressed the jet-black release pad twice, anticipating the forthcoming 'confirm previous selection' command, and watched the strange-matter carcass of Poseidon stream towards His Mother's body. It would take a continent with it to the mantle.

Alan's voice, ever at medium, came through clearly, as always.

"'Just in case', Master Gabriel?"

Unwavering from the task for which I was born, “A little more than that, Alan."

"This is for Father."

And after the fire, will come the ice, came Frost's words into my head, though surely jumbled.

"And this," pressing the twin release for the fission core, with its deadly store of cobalt, which would keep the coming nuclear winter hot with gamma light for decades;

"Is for Mother."

...but if it had to perish twice
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great, and would suffice...

-Robert Frost

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