by David Brookes
They asked him that old question, "If you had to live on an unmanned space station for a solar year, and you could only take three things, what would you take?"
He thought they were having a laugh at first, but apparently the competition had Terms and Conditions and he would need to abide by the rules if he wanted his Once In A Lifetime dream visit to outer space. Apparently it would make better viewing when he broadcast the daily feed across the country, to the delight of the regular audience.
He hadn't realised it when he'd signed up for the game show, and it kind of made winning feel less like winning, but he'd been asked that old question before and thought that he would probably have made his mind up by the deadline, which was the next day.
Twenty-four hours later they bundled him into a suit with a camera hanging down in front of his visor, like how some ancient farmer would dangle a carrot in front of a mule's eyes to make it plough. He was told not to remove or unseal the suit even a little bit, and to not mess with the wiring, because if the camera broke then there was no show, and if there was no show then there was no-one to pay for the visit or for his £250 spending money, which didn't amount to much in 2047.
There was an auto-cam on the shuttle, which filmed him looking nervous and green in the cheeks. By the time he arrived on the space station, which hung just inside of the moon's orbit but was considerably smaller and less interesting, the only camera was the one hanging in front of his face, annoyingly ever-present at the top of his field of vision.
One of the three things that he would take to an unmanned space station was his space suit, which was cheating a little bit because it included a personal stereo, a television with a long-distance transmission receiver, and a unit in the palm of his right glove that could keep a drink hot or cold, depending on the beverage.
He found, as a joke, that the producers of the show had locked his TV receiver onto one channel, which was the channel that was dedicated to the live 24-hour feed from his own camera. His stereo had been wiped completely clean but for the song that he had specified in an apparently unrelated survey as his all-time favourite, which was "Zankahnian Docking Procedures" by The Anti-Clankers. His glove still worked, but it was pretty useless as the only thing he had to drink was his own recycled urine, which tasted exactly as one would expect whether it was heated or otherwise.
The Anti-Clankers song played in his ears as he checked out the place where he would be spending the next four weeks. It was a rude song about sexual relations with an alien species that had, upon first being seen, disgusted and confused the human race until they realised that the hideous folds of fat and skin were a kind of organic clothing which -- when shed -- revealed something a little less disgusting but still mildly unnerving to the human eye. It made the game show winner laugh, which was why it was his favourite. The first verse goes thus:
Check my record / check me with your strange routines
My libido baby's breakin through your quar-an-tines
I'll dock my shuttle with you like you never, never seen
Don't matter if you smell like a blocked la-trine
The space station was small and, as promised, entirely unmanned. He had hoped that maybe there would be an AI to keep him company, but there was none. He only had the second of the three things that he would take to an unmanned space station, which was now trotting behind him and getting under his feet.
It was his cybo-organipet, Winnipeg. It was an ugly creature, bred/created for domesticity. It contained the genes and characteristics of one or two alien species (including the Zankahnians) but it was sub-sentient and little more than a toy.
It scuttled ahead down the metal walkway, examining its new surroundings. It didn't seem too impressed. It turned back to its master and gurgled.
'Well?' he said. 'Now what?'
The third of the three things that he would take to an unmanned space station was a book: Moby Dick by Herman Melville. It was his favourite book. Since most people, in answer to that question, had a favourite book as one of their three chosen things, he'd thought he'd better take one along as well. And, since he would be here for a month, he thought that it had better be a long one.
He placed the book on a desk and found the toilet, which was first port of call after the shuttle journey. He was horrified to find that the gravity was substantially less than one-g, which didn't affect a person with magnified boots but will affect any projectile bodily fluids.
He sat in a seat at an inactive computer console and played with Winnipeg. The little thing fluxed its skin pigments in an amusing pattern. The game show winner laughed, and then looked around for something to do.
THIRTY-EIGHT WEEKS LATER
According to its master, Winnipeg was a dual wonder. Although she only needed to be fed once or twice a month, she regularly excreted faeces that apparently tasted wonderful to humans. And not as some kind of weird delicacy -- it tasted like Turkish Delight.
The thought of her master sucking down her excrement worried Winnipeg greatly, but of course she didn't let on because she'd been marketed as a lower class of AI and wasn't supposed to have cognitive functions. If her master wanted to eat poo, then eat poo he shall.
For three weeks Winnipeg had mewled and grunted and giggled with her master, letting him know that she appreciated all the fun and games he engaged her with. The game where he sang the lyrics to what had once been his favourite song and then burst into tears was especially fun:
You can search my cargo, and check for life signs
But I'm breakin no embargo by lookin this fine
Scan me scan me baby with those luminous eyes
Take me flying darlin through those alien skies
Strangely enough, he seemed to have taken adversely to the tune during his time at the station. He'd also set fire to the book that he brought, and squatted by the flames in his spacesuit, onto which he'd painted (using nutrient paste) childlike depictions of his own naked body. Winnipeg rubbed her soft scales against her master's legs, blinking her eyes in that combination he particularly liked.
'Nine and a half months,' he was murmuring to himself. 'Long enough to have a baby. Am having a baby? Are you having a baby, Winnipeg? Where are they? They're very, very late. Maybe they forgot about me. Maybe there was a war. Maybe there was a plague that killed everybody. Am I alone, Winnipeg? Am I all alone?'
She wondered about his mental health. Humans were fragile in a secluded environment. According to his written logs, which were garbled stream-of-consciousness, he felt perfectly normal and was enjoying this week's batch of faecal candy. However, he had twice already attempted to eat the partially-burned remains of the Herman Melville novel, and sung (to the tune of "Zankahnian Docking Procedures") how the thing should have been 200 pages shorter, that half of it read like a text book, and Jesus how he wished he'd brought the latest film adaptation instead, which was set in the future and had a cybernetic Ahab chasing down a gargantuan, white space beetle through the cold reaches of space.
Winnipeg also wondered, in her sentient yet admittedly limited capacity, if there was anything she could have done to belay the transition from Perfectly Sane to Certifiable. She thought probably not. All she could do was be the companion she had always striven to be.
She approached him as he sat, upside down, in one of the uncomfortable seats by the computer consoles. He had removed his boots and was wiggling his toes in front of his helmet-mounted camera. The master found it amusing to perform some act of inanity and then watch the live broadcast channel on his wrist-screen, which had a twenty-second delay.
Perhaps he was absorbed in a kind of time-slip between the present and the immediate past, made supremely entertaining by his softened consciousness.
Now, he wiggled his toes. On the screen he was examining some used dental floss he'd used two weeks ago.
Now, he was banging his head (and the camera) against the floor -- he was still upside down in the chair -- and on the screen he was wiggling his toes. He laughed quietly.
'Why did they send me on a holiday just to drive me crazy?' he had asked in one of his journals.
Winnipeg trotted over to her master and licked his hand with one of her tongues. He responded by staring at her in an unusual way.
'Nutrient paste,' he said, almost inaudibly.
Winnipeg mewled adoringly, disguising her confusion. The look her master was giving her was worrying.
'Won't have no more nutrient paste,' he murmured, and reached out, his legs still in the air and his face upside down, hair brushing the floor, inverted eyes wide with some emotion ... Delusion? Hunger?
Winnipeg ran away, and found refuge beneath a refrigeration unit that stood a pet-friendly two inches off the ground. She would wait, baffled by her master's behaviour, until the holiday was over.
THE LAST DAY
The production team arrived and removed the suit-cam. They had their own cameras with them, which offered a multitude of angles for the enthralled viewers. Each view captured the game show winner from a different side, capturing his manic grief in all its glory. It would make a great bonus feature for the DVD.
Winnipeg followed her master down the steps and into the shuttle. The production team picked her up and tickled her tummy in the way that they knew she enjoyed.
They put her master into the pod and told him to expect minor G-induced memory loss, just like on the journey up. Then they put him to sleep, and straight away carried him out of the shuttle and off the set to the dressing room. He woke up a few hours later, content that he had slept through the whole journey home, and glad that he was back on terra firma, which of course he had never left.
Of course, they had not really left him there for thirty-eight weeks. It had been the one month that had been outlined in the Terms and Conditions, along with the three-items rule. There was also a rule (hidden behind a veil of technical jargon and impenetrable syntax) that allowed the secret administration of psychotropic drugs to the competition winner's bloodstream, for the purpose of entertainment. These had been administered not by some cleverly concealed hypodermic, but orally in the form of Winnipeg's faeces. The winner had only thought that he'd been there nine and a half months. He had self-willed himself into insanity.
As he slept, Winnipeg herself was being opened up and her films removed. She let them know some entertaining details that she thought the cams behind her eyes might not have picked up (two cameras, because they could be screened together to create a cool 3-D effect). The techies laughed as she replayed the audio recording of his rendition of The Anti-Clankers, and then switched her off, before she could complain.
© 2008 David Brookes
Bio: David Brookes lives in Sheffield, England, where he studies for a Masters degree in Writing. Several of his short stories can be found across the web, as well as on his own website: Spinning Lizard. His first novel "Half Discovered Wings", will be published by Libros International later this year.
E-mail: David Brookes
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