“I enjoy watching you eat,” the A.I. says. “I don’t appreciate you calling me ‘King’ though.”
Sterling chuckles. “I’ve programmed your voice to sound like Elvis Presley, so that’s…”
“’Elvis Presley’ : The King of Rock and Roll, an American entertainer….”
“I don’t need the info from your memory banks. I did it to break the monotony.”
“Understood, but could you call me a better name, Bob?”
Sterling pushes the plate and utensils into the vent to be cleaned. He gets up, his captain’s bars gleaming on his uniform as he stands next to the equally tall A.I. “How about El?”
“’El’ : A Semitic word for God…”
“No, just short for Elvis. Okay?”
“I can accept that.”
“Good.” El follows Bob into the cockpit. Bob eases into his chair, El standing next to him. They stare into the vast expanse of stars gleaming in the black fabric of space. Bob notices a blip on the communication panel and enhances it. “We’ve got a distress call.”
El waves his hand over a screen. “Locking in on the coordinates.”
“Take us there.”
“It is an old signal, Bob, using an antiquated frequency. We’re probably much too late.”
“That’s the nature of a DSRS; we mop up way out here.”
A few hours later as they near the crippled vessel, El says, “Why don’t you dream, Bob?”
Bob stares at the burnt fuselage of the old ship. “I don’t know that I don’t dream.”
“I always listen to your brain waves; I hear nothing.”
“Maybe you are on the wrong frequency.”
“But I detect your waking thoughts.”
“That’s just creepy,” Bob says.
Once they return from the doomed ship, Bob and EL watch it explode in a silent array of colors. Bob waves his hand over the console. “U.S.S. Franklin terminated. Crew of five lost to fire. Ship log recovered and forwarded. Sterling out.”
El places a hand on his shoulder. “Why don’t you grieve?”
Bob stands and looks at El’s generic features. “They’ve been dead for fifty years.”
“Don’t humans grieve for their dead.”
“I’m going to bed,” Bob says. He goes into his quarters and seals the door, knowing El will stand outside it all night. He sits on the edge of the bed, turns on the monitor, and opens the Franklin log. He reviews it for hours before going to sleep.
El stands over him as he eats his waffles with blueberries and strawberries. “Curious,” El says.
“My choice of fruit?”
“No, you did not dream again last night.”
“Why is that curious?”
“After seeing the charred bodies on the Franklin….”
“It’s part of our work.”
“And the log that you read for hours?”
Bob eats the waffles, reminiscent of mornings in his parents’ earth home as a boy. He can order whatever food he wants and it tastes just as he remembers it.
“If you can read my mind, why do we even talk?”
El smiles. “It’s for your benefit, Bob.”
“What am I thinking now?”
“You remember an entry in the log where Tongo, captain of the Franklin, administered assistance to children on Colony Five. His recollections of their hunger and sickness moved you to tears.”
Bob nods. “I did cry because Tongo described it so vividly. The one child died, but he tried to save her.”
El waves his hand over the console and a plate of waffles with blueberries and strawberries emerges. He sits and eats awkwardly, looking up at Bob. “Interesting texture.”
“Never ate before?” Bob asks.
“Yes, it’s not necessary, but seems a fascinating way to understand you better.”
“I don’t dream about food either, I suppose.”
“You dream about nothing.”
“I find that surprising since I had a hard time sleeping after reading the log.”
“Perhaps humans cannot dream in space.”
“In the old days a captain had a girl in every port,” Bob says as they commence entry into the atmosphere of Nova Martis. He appreciates the crimson glow of the planet’s surface, reminding him of his first training mission to Mars.
“Now what does a captain have?” El asks.
Bob smirks. “You!”
“I do not comprehend.”
“This colony is fully automated. It is just a supply stop: no bars, no women, nothing.”
“I am sorry.”
“I’m used to it, El.”
After refueling and stocking supplies, Bob and El visit the commissary. Bob studies the menu on the screen. “Sometimes there is a good hit unique to the system. Look, Martis purple onions in baskak gravy with potatoes and turgid blexx bladder.”
“Sounds good?” El asks.
“No, just adventurous. I’m tired of eating the stuff of memories.”
After dinner Bob rests in the guest quarters as El stands outside the door. He falls asleep and dreams of a child in distress. He assists the child but her face starts melting as he dabs her wounds with a cloth. He wakes up and wipes away the tears running down his face.
Back on the ship they ease out of dry dock and move up through the atmosphere. Soon they are back in space, moving through the eternal darkness quietly. “I’m tired of not rescuing people. We just recover the dead. It never changes.”
“Your mission ends in 213 days.”
“There is hope then.”
“You did dream last night.”
“Where I come from that’s called a nightmare.”
“’Nightmare’ : An unpleasant dream causing emotional distress….”
“Yes, I know.”
“I’m sorry it was unhappy.”
“That’s a human thing.”
“Any emotion is better than none it would seem.”
“Perhaps.” Bob fears dreaming again that night.
It doesn’t matter to El – in space no one can hear you dream.
Photo credits: Wikimedia; Wikipedia
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