Estelle, Come Back

By Daniel Bartel




"Lt. Sid Darius signing in. Password 3490-211."

The transparent visiplate flashed and a blinking green cursor appeared in the corner. Sid cleared his throat.

"Log book entry: Year 2134, Day 547. Ugh-huh. Damn this thirst. Why didnít I just leave that leak alone? Each time I try to fix something, I just make it worse. Now there is no more water. It feels like slow death. As if the last six months arenít supposed to be hell enough, I have to bring in my drinking water by bucket."

The words appeared on the screen as he spoke. Sid reached down and scratched his droopy nakedness. He hardly dressed anymore. No one was around to see him.

"I was in the flight simulator the other day and fell asleep. Lisa and Ashley finally met and found out about each other. Then they both chartered a flight out to see me. They both were pissed. They got even angrier seeing me standing naked in front of them. Then they just caved, finding me irresistible as always, and we the three of us made love right there. Talk about a dream you hate to wake up to.

"I wonder if they have met. Who cares? Only six months to go before Iím off this shitty planet and get my big bonus. Then Iíll be in charge of my own ship. Who will be dreaming then? Signing off."

Sid hated being cut off from civilization so much he could spit. The highlights of each day were his log entries. But with hardly anything to do, there was very little to write about. But thatís the way the Federation Space Academy wanted it. Life on Romulus 4 wasnít supposed to be a vacation.

Talented or not, every Federation pilot had to endure two-year isolation training. It was critical to pilots like Sid who had chosen to navigate the giant starships. Federation officials had selected the planet because it was remote and without any life forms. If pilots went stir crazy, then they couldnít be certified. Sid was a mastered pilot and flew with few mistakes. Survival training was all he needed; isolation training was simply a waste of time, he thought.

The first year had gone by quickly. Sid busied himself in the isolation chamber several hours each day, plotting flight trajectories. Armed with a great memory, Sid sat in his flight simulator going over equations. Sometimes he played chess in his head; most of the time he thought about sex.

He missed Earth. He missed beer and the smell of cigarettes even though he didnít smoke. He missed the color of neon lights and wild women. Every two months, the visiplate at his desk beamed him news update transmissions and orders from Mission Control thousands of light years away, but each broadcast couldnít be longer than five minutes. They were mainly briefs from headquarters telling him of he latest military developments. Federation officials offered him as little contact with people as possible.

The last six months felt like they would stretch into an eternity. Sid was fighting a loosing battle with leaky water pipe outside. He detached the pipe from the purifier dome to replace the rubber washer and the pipe distanced itself four inches away, too far to be reattached with one pair of hands. Sid was forced to shut off the water and wait several hours each day for water to trickle into a bucket that sat underneath. Water was used to drink and cook with. Baths became a luxury.

Standing in his bathroom sink one morning, he noticed water in the soap dish start to ripple and shake. A jet sound swooped overhead. His hut trembled and shook. Sid jumped into a robe and ran about the hut holding standing plates and picture frames from toppling. The sound roared all about the hut followed by a calming silence and thenÖimpact.

Sid felt the ground sweep out from underneath him. Books and pictures spilled into the living area. Sid stood and collected himself and looked around his upended hut living room. Immediately, he began putting things back where they belonged, and the burning smell hit his nose. Something pungent and foul.

He went to the front portico to see a column of black smoke rising over one of the large boulders. A spaceship had cut a deep gash in the terrain. He ran down to the accident to check on the survivors. Among the charred wreckages were thousands of burned parcels and letters. It was a Federation mail ship. Sid ripped open the door to the cabin to find the flight officers partially charred and a pool of blood collected on the cabin floor. Sid cupped his mouth and turn away. It was the first human contact heíd had in 18 months.

The following days were spent burying the bodies of the crew and collecting the thousands of letters and parcels that still remained. He brought the letters back to his office to protect them from being blown away by the dust storms. Among the packages was a large silver shipping case too heavy to lift. The side of the case said "ROCKE Corporation" as was addressed to the "Zephyr Casinos."

Heíd been to those casinos in the outland worlds when he was a new initiate. They were a haven for galactic riff raff filled with thieves, con artists and drug addicts. But there were good times as well Ė lots of mischief, exotic women. What was in that case, he wondered. The encrypted locks were enough to deter trying to open it.

He resisted opening any of the letters except for one impossible to resist opening. It was addressed to the casino from the ROCKE Corporation. He ripped the through it to find the combination to the silver shipping case and the description of an android. But no ordinary android. Between foam pads of the case were the parts to the 005321 EST-L model female android sealed in cellophane wrapping. After dragging the case to his hut, he grabbed the ownerís manual, broke the seal and devoured its contents. Assembly time would take anywhere from 42 to 76 hours. There was no time to lose.

"I fell asleep with the tools in my hand yesterday, today Ė I donít even know what day it is. Fourteen hours and I almost have her put together. The directions said to allow 42 hours assembly time. Did they think monkeys would be putting her together? I think about all those bimbos I used to date on Earth. They wonít hold a candle to Estelle. Sheíll be better than all the rest. Iíll make it so. Smarter, prettier, helpful, a conversationalist. And if she doesnít know, I will teach her. The assembly is easy. I hardly follow the manual anymore. For some reason it takes less time without it. Itís coming together on itís own. I canít wait until sheís done. FinallyÖthe perfect girl."

Sid made a lot of special modifications to Estelleís face after attaching her head and limbs. There were implant accessories that came with the case to add to the face underneath the rubbery skin. He made her cheekbones higher, lifted up the corners of her eyes so they smiled slightly.

Once put together, all the clefts where the pieces had been attached were sealed with a flesh resin epoxy that took minutes to dry. Sid looked her over while she sat on the bed poised, her eyes closed, her artificial skin glistening. She was beautiful but her body was hard and cold to the touch. She was still too skinny and shapeless. Sid wanted Estelle to have a shapely figure like a real woman.

Inside the metal shipping case was a canister of silicon gel that could be administered by plugging the two tubes into the side of Estelleís bare chest. The meter and distributor connected at the other end of the tube had a dial to gauge how much of the fluid to put in. The ROCKE Corp. designed all sorts of androids: mining androids, yeomen androids, smartdroids that performed quick calculations. Estelle one was among the specialty androids designed to attract men, designed to be touched.

Sid watched intently as Estelleís her arms and legs swelled with fluid as did her face and chest. She looked like at any moment her eyes would open and see him. There was one last option that the series 005321 came with, a humanizing agent. A push on the back of Estelleís head would depress a button underneath the skin which would make her body grow warm and glow with artificial life. However, once the trigger switch was thrown it was irreversible. If Estelle was not liked, she would have to be destroyed.

The instruction manual cautioned: "Warning. The ROCKE Corporation waives all responsibility once the cranial toggle switch is depressed."

Sid decided to hold off using the button until later.

"Tonight is my last night being alone. I canít wait. I donít know if I will be able to sleep but I have to get rest at some point. Iím so exhausted. My vision is blurry, my legs and arms feel like wet noodles. Iíve never worked so intently on anything in my entire life. I had a dream about Estelle last night. I havenít even turned her on yet and all ready I think Iím in loveÖ"

Sid carefully reached up to the sides of her jaw and squeezed the sides. Estelleís eyelids opened, revealing two crystal blue eyes that sparkled in the candlelight behind him. Sid wore his spacemanís uniform. He hadnít worn clothes in almost two weeks and it felt awkward. But he wanted the occasion when Estelle saw him to be romantic.

"EST-L, Series 005321, product number 4613501. Voice check: Galileo. Reptilian. Interplanetary," he said, reading from the instruction sheet. "Can you hear me?"

"Yes." Her voice was deep and buttery. "Itís so nice to meet you," Sid said.

From the beginning, Estelle was everything Sid wanted in a woman. He never knew a sensation as the one he felt watching the water pipe shift back against the purifier dome. Sid screwed the bolts into place as Estelle pushed against the pipe. Soon, the faucets in his bathroom and kitchen would drip again.

"I canít believe it, Estelle, I have running water now," he said.

"This is good?"

"There arenít words to describe it. Thank you."

"Do you want to see more?"

Estelle and Sid work for ours a time completing odd jobs around the hut: sealing cracks, sweeping the floor, dusting. Overnight, the interior of Sidís hut took on the look of a regular home. Estelle was a great partner. She picked up on everything Sid taught her Ė how to repair a leaky faucet, how space travel works. She even learned how to play chess after Sid taught her. After a couple of games, he proved no match for her. Mistakes werenít a part of her vocabulary, and he was proud of her because she was his very own.

Sid didnít lay a finger on Estelle at first. He waited to see if she would send him a signal that she was interested in being intimate. But she didnít. After a few days, Sid found himself lying in bed with Estelle, curled up next to her cool body. He caressed her stomach and arms and moved over to kiss her.

"Why are you doing that?" Estelle said.

"The water is running again, the living room is clean, everything is in its right place. And itís all thanks to you."

"Why thanks to me?

"Because you helped me."

"Should I be nice to you, too?"

"That would be nice."

Estelle moved over to plant her lips in his. There was no movement. Estelleís lips were cold and callous, her body hard and mechanical. She pulled away. Sid knew what he had to do.

* * *

Commander Norris never made a comment about Sidís appearance. The most he ever said was too keep in good physical condition. But Norris couldnít help noticing that Sidís face was rosier. He grinned. Sid never grinned.

"Anything else? Anything at all," Norris said.

"Nope. Been pretty quiet around here," Sid said, looking at the visiplate.

"Excited about coming back, are you?"

"Absolutely, sir."

"Excited? Ecstatic, more like. Youíre actually wearing clothes again. Youíre cheeks are flushed. Youíre glowing. Thereís something different about you. Are you taking supplements?"

"All of that and more, sir."

"Lieutenant," the commander said with a grave tone. "Iím not going to have to scan for visitors, now do I?"

"No, sir."

The room flashed as if belted by a strobe light. The reports only indicated a single life form in Sidís room. Himself.

"No organic life forms except you, a couple plants andÖmust be dinner time. Since when did you start making lasagna?"

"Itís amazing what you find after you do some house cleaning," Sid said, stealing quick glance over to Estelle sitting on the bed, an apron hugging her tender frame, her hands clasped in her lap, waiting pleasantly.

"Indeed. Carry on. Over and out," Norris said.

The commander signed off. Sid swiveled his portal chair in Estelleís direction. It had been several weeks since Sid had depressed the humanizing switch. There was no going back now, and Sid wouldnít have it any other way. Sid sat next to her on the bed holding her hand, which was now warm and supple.

"Why are you keeping me a secret?" Estelle said.

"Iím not."

"Did you tell your captain about me?"

"No."

"Why not."

"Because thereís nothing to tell."

"What do you mean? Are you ashamed of me?"

"What are you talking about? Estelle, youíre perfect."

"I would think if I were perfect then that alone would be worth telling others."

"I canít."

"Why not."

"Itís complicated."

"Why?"

"Because it is."

He paused for a while then moved to hold her. Estelle pulled away.

"You must tell me why."

Sid breathed a disgust sound: "Because Iím not supposed to have a companion. Iím supposed to be alone. Iím a pilot in isolation training. If they catch us then Iíll be sent back home and I wonít get my bonus. I need my bonus."

"You mean Iím not supposed to be here?" Estelle said.

"No, youíre not."

"Then why am I here?"

"The freight ship you were in crashed and I rescued you from the wreckage."

"How did you rescue me?"

"I pulled the shipping case that you came in out of the flames."

"My shipping case? Was I still in pieces?"

"Yes."

"You assembled me."

He nodded.

"Why?"

"I wanted someone to talk to."

"But youíre not supposed to have a companion."

"Look, Estelle, youíre here now. Thatís all that matters. You know, and you should be grateful. I mean, arenít you happy I brought you to life?"

Estelle shifted her head slightly from side to side. Her motions began to loose some of their human-like fluidity.

"I am not happy. Iím not unhappy. I cannot respond with emotions until I know how to respond."

He sighed. She looked at him, deadpan: "If you keep me, then you would loose your salary. If you loose me, then you could keep your salary. And you can keep both if you keep me a secret."

"Basically, yes."

"Then you are very selfish."

He chuckled: "You donít even know what that word means."

"Does it mean anything to you?"

"Not in this context."

"What about in this context?"

Estelle walked over to the baking dish filled with Sidís hot supper and turned it upside down. Lasagna splattered all over the tiled floor.

"Oh, thatís great. Thanks," Sid said.

"See. I canít be selfish too. Want to see more?" she said.

"No. Why donít you go clean that up?"

"No, you can clean that up after I show you more."

Estelle picked up Sidís ceramic dishes and let them slip from her fingers so they shattered. After that, she walked over to his bookcase and shook it like shaking apples out of a tree. Books and pictures tumbled to the ground.

"Estelle, cut it out," Sid said, kneeling down, salvaging a portion of the lasagna. "Stop it. I donít want to see more."

"Iím am not happy, now. Iím sad, because now I know that youíre just using me for companionship."

"But all this is foolishness. Youíre just an android. Youíre made to serve us."

"Youíre made to serve yourself, Lt. Sid Darius."

Estelle went out through the front door of the hut.

It all looked like an elaborate charade, part of her programming. Sid huffed, knowing she would return soon. But the sound of her tracks grew more distant until finally they dissipated completely.

"Okay Estelle, quit fooling around. Come on back," Sid said, walking out of the hut. There was no sight of her just dirt, gravel and boulders. He scoured the grounds, calling her name but there was so sign of her. Gradually, his walk turned from a shuffle and then into a jog as he pursued her.

"Estelle, we can work this out. Please, Estelle answer me. Where are you?"

He scanned the grounds picking up on her small footprints. He followed after them until the outside of the footprints grew incongruously bigger. For a second, Sid thought he was following his own tracks. The pursuit came to a halt as he ran into a 300 lbs armed agent who stood unmoved like a wall. Sid tumbled to the ground and knocked his head against the base of a boulder. His search had led him back to the crash site. Only now there were about a dozen Federation agents roaming the crash site.

A second skinnier agent pushed a pistol in Sidís face.

"Who are you? What the hell are you doing here?" the second agent said.

"Relax corporal," the first agent said. "Heís a Space Academy cadet."

The first agent, Sgt. Brixton, pushed Sid up against the rock. The side of Sidís face grew swollen and tender.

"Thatís quite a shiner you got there," Brixton said.

Sid grasped his area around his cheek, wincing.

"Are you okay?" he said.

"Hurts," Sid said.

"Toughen you up. Iím Sgt. Toni Brixton, and this is Corp. Edwin Myers. Weíre special agents with the Federation Circulation Authority and weíre here to recover parcels and mail lost in the crash? Did you witness the crash?"

Sid nodded.

"Did you recover any of the missing items?"

"I have them back at my place."

"Good lad."

Brixton and Myers and the crew spent the majority of that afternoon hauling off the thousands of pieces of space mail and parcels that Sid had stashed in his hut cellar. Federation agents stepped over pieces of broken plates and glass as they searched Sidís place for more letters. Sid pressed a cold wet rag against his bruise as the agents collected their materials. He had kept Estelleís shipping case in a secret compartment under his bed.

Brixton and Myers invited Sid to have chat with him just before leaving and sat themselves in his living room chairs.

"Weíll if thatís it, I think weíll be on your way. Sorry, if we interrupted your training," Brixton said.

"No problem at all."

"How long you been stationed out here," he said.

"About 18 months. Only six more to go."

"I bet itís good to see people again," he said. Sid nodded. "But it is a problem Iím sure. Youíre not supposed to have contact with anyone, and I intend to make a full report of our presence to your commander," Brixton said.

"If you feel you need to," Sid said, smiling.

Myers, who had been quiet for most of the afternoon, leaned forward in his seat. He was as short and skinny as Brixton was tall and fat.

"Out of curiosity, Lieutenant, what were you doing out while we were making our rounds and bumped into you?" Myers said.

"I was going for a walk," he said. "It can get pretty crazy being cooped up in here sometimes."

"I see, crazy enough for you to throw plates and break windows?" Myers said motioning to the scattered remains on the floor.

"Oh that," Sid said. "We get quakes here from time to time."

"Quakes. Interesting. Youíre about 1,500 kilometers from the nearest fault line," Myers said.

"Those must be some pretty big quakes," Brixton said.

Sid tried to smile. He couldnít tell if they were on to him. Estelle could walk through that door at any minute and it would be all over.

"Actually, they can be," Sid said.

"Well," Brixton said. "If thatís it, I guess weíll be on our way. Is there anything else weíre forgetting?"

"Iíll be sure to send you lightmail if anything comes up," Sid said.

"Weíll be on our way then. Good luck with the rest of your training. Oh-," he said, turning back. "Donít this little crash mishap spoil your idea of space mail. The Federation Circulation System is still the most reliable ways to send a package."

* * *

Sid paced all through the night wondering whether Estelle would return. He held off the desire to go searching for her. The skies had turned to nightfall and nights on Romulus 4 were dangerous. Howling windstorms could get up to 100 miles an hour and temperatures dropped below freezing.

Using infrared scanners wouldnít work since Estelleís artificial skin didnít produce enough heat energy. There was no way to find her besides to simply to follow her tracks if the gales hadnít already erased them. There was no telling how resilient the ROCKE engineers had made their androids, especially the ones not designed to withstand the harsh elements.

In bed, Sid tossed and he turned. The sheets scratched at his leg. His bed and pillow were soaked with perspiration.

At times in the wee hours of the night, he would drift off into moments of sleep and see Estelle in a pair of blue pajamas cooking eggs at the stove. He drifted through the living room of an actual house just having woken up and could see clouds and sunshine outside through the windows. Sid sat in a chair at the breakfast table. A delicate plume of steam rose off the eggs that sat in front of him. Estelle filled her own plate with breakfast and sat. There was jam, toast and orange juice there on the table.

He was on Earth again.

"This is all too perfect," he said.

"Everything is just the way you want it."

"Did you enjoy last night?"

She nodded. "I hope you never leave me," she said.

Sid gasped and was suddenly wide awake. He looked at his time element. Heíd only been asleep for only an hour, but it didnít matter. Sid leapt out of bed and went to the storage closet to find a knapsack. There would be no more waiting around. It was time to get the girl.

Sidís had barely used his hiking boots and after two hours of walking he could feel blisters forming. As he scanned the terrain of Romulus 4, he remembered why he was stayed indoors most of the time. The planet was dusty and desolate, a land of jagged rocks and steep embankments. Sid traveled several terrameters away from the hut before his time element beeped. It was the signal to start heading back. The sun would be setting in the northeast leaving him out in the cold and sure to die miserably.

Distantly, he heard a sound. At first, he thought it was the whistling of the wind. But then, he heard it again and walked in the direction of the sound Ė a small pathetic little voice crying out "help me."

He followed the "help me" sound into a shallow ravine until it grew louder. Help me. His eyes searched the ravine floor intently. Where was the noise coming from? And then he saw was what at first looked like a rock was a body covered by dust and dirt. He rushed over to the heap bushed away the dirt to reveal Estelleís lovely dehydrated face. Her lips were sealed and wrinkled as was her skin. Her eyes were shut. The "help me" sound came from a speaker underneath her chest. He looked over her body. Nothing looked broken or out of place.

"Estelle. Oh my god, Estelle," Sid said as he shook her, but she didnít wake. He could see the shadows from the rocks had crept up slowly along the ground. He had to get back to the hut before sundown.

Sid slung Estelle across his shoulder and carried her back to the hut, but not before getting caught in a violent dust storm than left him blind and directionless. Exhausted, he set Estelle back on the ground and tried once again at getting her to work.

"Please wake up," he said, pushing the side of her jaw in, trying to activate her waking switch. Sid shook her head, and beat on her chest, witless, desperate, helpless. Her eyes opened. Sid stopped. She turned to look at him.

"You came," she said.

"Yes. Thank god youíre back."

Estelle grinned and as she did tore her cheek of artificial skin exposing black fibers and the white implants.

"Donít Estelle. Youíve lost all your moisture. We have to get you back. Can you walk?"

Sid picked her up and they limped together the rest of the way.

* * *

"Youíre doing it wrong," Estelle said, as she lay on the bed mattress.

Sid dabbed Estelleís cheek with the artificial flesh epoxy. She ended up with one to three inch tears all over her body, mostly along her legs and arms that Sid had sealed with the epoxy. The arid climate robbed Estelleís artificial skin of all its moisture and made it thin like paper. Some androids were just not designed to battle the elements.

But several months had already passed since that occasion, and every lesion had been sealed with the epoxy except one: an area around her the mouth. The cheek tear flapped whenever Estelle spoke. The only thing that seemed to flap even more lately were her lips.

"What am I doing wrong?" Sid said. "The directions said to apply epoxy generously."

"Well I guess you and the directions have a different understanding of the word generous, now donít you."

"Estelle, donít start."

"Iím just trying to tell you that if Iím to keep from tearing again, than youíre going to have to apply more."

"Thereís isnít a whole lot left. Besides, this would be a lot easier if youíd just give your mouth a rest and let it dry correctly."

"Donít take that tone with me."

"Estelle, hush up."

"You hush up."

"Fine," Sid said, putting the final dabs on her cheek and holding the exhausted tube over her: "There you have go. Thatís the last of it. So, if you want to keep tearing, just keep it up."

Had Estelle agreed to stop talking, it wouldíve been the longest period for her. Something had gone wrong. Since bringing Estelle out of the dust storm, she had turned into nothing but a quarrelsome and hypercritical android bitch. Nothing could please her; everything Sid did was impolite or incorrect. They fought constantly. If Sid went one way, she went the other. Estelle stomped around and called Sid "selfish."

At first Sid thought something in the wild of the planet Ė maybe sand or dirt Ė had screwed up her circuitry. Estelle wasnít herself anymore. Maybe it was just punishment for all the ex-girlfriends heíd treated so poorly on Earth. Sid told her that he loved her, hoping that maybe it would soften her, but she was unaffected.

"ÖĎAm I pretty enough? Am I too fat? Why donít you talk enough? Why do you talk so much? Close your mouth when you chew. Donít you ever clean up after yourself? Quit touching me so much.í Thatís all she seems to say anymore. I canít live like this. It feels like slow death. As if the last two months arenít supposed to be hell enough, I have an androidÖAN ANDROIDÖ ordering me around.

"Why did I push that stupid humanizing button? Things were so much better before. Hell, things wouldíve been better had that damn mail ship never crashed in the first place. Itís so strange the way things happen. Six months ago, I fantasized about having a woman with me here, and now all I canít think of are ways to get rid of herÖ"

It was getting close to time for Sid to leave Romulus 4, and he was wondering how to dispose of his pestering companion. Heíd managed to keep her a secret all this time; getting rid of her seemed to be an easy solution. In the heat of his anger, Sid thought of malicious ways to do it: leading her off a cliff, dropping a boulder on her head, electrocuting her. He could make it look like an accident, but none of it would work. He couldnít bring himself to actually go through with any of it.

She had been well behaved for the last few days. He had tried to mind himself more lately: cleaning up after himself, brushing his teeth. Sid knew it was getting close to their last meal when he would have to retire her somehow. And then Estelle dropped the biggest surprise of all. As he ate one evening, she began to sob. Uncontrollable, tearless sobs.

"I Ö I," she said.

"Come, come. What is it? Is it me again?" he said.

"Itís just that I canít believe this. Look at all youíve done for me. You brought me here. You saved me from that awful Casino world. You pulled me out of the desert after I ran away. And you have made it through all my behavior. How could I say all those awful things about you."

"Estelle, just take it easy."

"No. Iím so wretched, how can you stand it?"

"Iím sure youíre just going through a lot."

"No, no, no. There is no excuse. You want to kill me. Iíve seen the anger in your eyes. Iíve brought all this about."

"Estelle, please calm down."

"No, I canít. I have to tell you something before I loose you completely."

"I donít understand."

"The thing you want me to say."

"What could that be?"

"You know it. It would make all the sense in the world to you if I just said it. So Iím going to do it," she said, and positioned herself so that she could be facing him fully. She grabbed both of his hands. Sidís heart was racing.

"What are you going to say?" he said.

Estelle paused. Her cheek tear showed tiny crisscross wrinkles but held their place.

"I-," she said, "I luh..luhÖ"

She couldnít get it out. She tried again.

"I luhhÖI luhhvvÖ"

And that was all of it. Her body was frozen. Her smile flattened as the corners of her mouth fell. The aura of life slipped away as the light in her eyes dimmed. She sat motionless.

"Estelle?" Sid shook her. He knew what every android owner must handle eventually. But on Romulus 4, there was nowhere to replace a dead android battery.

* * *

Sid has one last look around the Federation hut as troops stood nearby, waiting to escort him to the personnel spacecraft. All his bags had been stowed on the craft, his furniture packed. In truth, he was sad to be leaving the ramshackle old hut.

Loading the last of his stuff into the open compartment of the spacecraft were Federation troops who bestowed congratulatory pats on Sid as he climbed into passenger doorway. He wasnít a hero by any means but he belonged to a distinguished level of people who had completed isolation training. Officers passing by greeted him as "captain," the new rank he would have as soon as he set foot on Federation headquarters. It was thrilling to see people again. He strapped himself into his seat with automatic seatbelt and mini-visiplate.

Sidís thoughts turned to the anticipation of seeing all things new and glorious on Earth. Who were the famous celebrities now? What was the popular music? But before he could think about all that, a voice called out inside his head Ė that still high-pitched distress call that he remembered one fateful day when he ventured out into the wild and rugged terrain of the planet. Sid held out, thinking the voice would go away, but it didnít. He couldnít make a clean break; she was holding him back.

"We canít take off yet," Sid said. "I left something behind."

Crewmembers seated and buckled turned to look at him. "Is it that important," a deck officer said. "Weíre going to miss our window if we donít take off now."

Sid Darius struggled with his seat belt before it finally came loose. He stood and depressed an emergency exits button near the passenger door. The engines of the spaceship slowed. "Ėonly take a minute," he said, leaping out of the ship. An intercom buzzed overhead. A voice was pissed.

Officers settled questioning crewmembers by explaining the isolation sickness and how some officers are prone to uncontrollable acts once theyíve completely their training. They elected to chase after Sid in about 10 minutes after which their navigation window would close, grounding them for the day.

There was a banging from the outside of the ship. Officers opened the door to find Sid dragging and limp body on deck. Crewmember rushed over to see the commotion.

"What the hell is that," the deck officer replied.

"My companion," he said.

Even in sleep, Estelle emitted a radiant beauty.

"Youíre in a lot of trouble, buddy," another voice cried out. "You might even be court marshaled." Sid heard the voice but didnít care. He was lost in a soft vision of tranquility and peace.

Instead of the priority seat, he would spend his trip home in the shipís brig.

* * *

When the Zephyr Casino lords discovered that someone had stolen and humanized their female android, their only thought was to kill Sid Darius. And if Darius had been discharged, that mightíve been possible. But he wasnít discharged and forced to pay the lords 10,000 Federation notes compensation.

Returning from isolation training wasnít the fate Sid had been hoping for. He didnít get the big bonus. He didnít get promoted to a navigation captain. The Federation held onto him instead and demoted his rank from second lieutenant to spaceman, first class, which meant he could get work on nothing more than the space freighters. There was no combat action in that line of work and little pay.

Nonetheless, his modest salary allowed him to afford a vehicle and small house in the suburbs and plenty of time off so he could spend more time with Estelle. The course heíd run living with Estelle on Earth was a good one, but not without its occasional bumps. Since being back, arguments centered around money: Estelle wanting to spend, Sid holding her back, she criticizing him for being cheap, he resenting her for it.

The only way he saw to make more money was to sign up for another two-year isolation training stint on yet another cold and distant planet and that was the last thing he wanted.

"But theyíre so perfect," Estelle said, holding up an image on her journalplate. She had run up an enormous bill ordering online fashion magazines. "None of my other shoes looks good with this outfit."

"Estelle, weíre on Earth now. If we want something, we have to pay for it. And we just donít have the kind of money to buy everything we want."

"Ugh, Iím so sick of this. When we go out with the Poplins, Frances wears a different pair of shoes every time I see her. Sheís shows it off to her other girl friends. They talk and giggle. They have fun. I want that!"

"Well, youíre going to have to find a way to talk and giggle about the pair of shoes that you already own."

"Why did you even come back for me? Is this the world that I was missing, this world with pretty pictures that lure people to things they canít have? Itís terrible. And look at this living room. Itís all wrong. The drapes and the sofa. It looks like we live in a barn. Iím going to have to get a job just to make it look presentable. Look here," Estelle said, turning to another image on her journalplate. "This manís stomach is flat and his chest defined. Look at youíre stomach. Itís soft and sticks out. Weíll have to fix that too. We need to get you a gym pass somewhere. What about your haircut? Itís still shaggy. And your pant legs. You need longer ones. And that silly little car you bought. Who would be caught dead in it? We need to get a new one. One that will make our neighbors jealous so they talk behind our back. We just have to make more money, Sid. We have to. Thereís so much work to be done. Letís do it Sid. I know we can. Sid? Sid, where are you?"

Sid was already in his hovercar backing out of the driveway. He could breath again. It was only ten miles to a Federation flight base. He was relatively healthy and had an open invitation to pick up his training whenever he wanted. He could probably hitch a ride on another personnel carrier before Estelle even knew heíd left. The thought, no woman is going to change me, kept turning over in his head.

Two years. It wasnít that long, really.

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Daniel Bartel

Bio: Daniel Bartel lives in Wichita Falls, Texas where he works as a regional reporter for the Wichita Falls Times Record News. This is his first science fiction story.

E-mail: Claybartel@aol.com

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