"Cassie, what's your favorite color?" I would glare at Shaw if I could see him. This canyon-sized fissure in the hull of the dying ship is so warped by heat distortions that the only clue we are moving is the low rumble of my pod engines and the slow, molten-metal lava flowing alongside us. We are inside the metal volcano, a radioactive, but quick, death a kilometer away in every direction.
I'm sweating so much. We're so close to scoring. "Are you really doing this test right now?" We picked the stress fracture because this route, unlike a painful trek through melting decks and sub-decks, is a straight shot to the ship core. These fissures are the source of the radiation and heat tearing apart the ship. Following one is our best bet for a payoff.
The massive tunnel has been clear so far, although the painful, ember glow along the titan walls is a constant threat. Shaw and my pod can withstand the direct output of a dying star: so long as the specialized hulls don't touch the source of heat, they will remain in equilibrium.
"The Turing Test is used by AIs to check the mental state of a human counterpart..." Shaw will not let it go. "... requiring that an AI should be able to distinguish the human from another AI by using the replies to questions put to both."
"Oh, you think I died on the approach?" I'm trying to go over the method for removing fuel rods in my head, and Shaw's doing personality tests. "You think the Gs ripped up my brain?"
"You just executed an impossible maneuver with guesswork. You got lucky." He's so flattering. "I can't get anymore readings on the ship this close to the damage. There's a good chance the rods' have nothing left- maybe the core is about to go critical."
"We can't stop now! The hard part's over." I'm lying to myself. The dangerous part is over. The next part is dangerous, and hard.
Shaw won't back off. "What's your favorite color?"
"Well Shaw, I'd say my favorite color is no color." I lean back in my seat and look up at the distant, ember roof. "Because if I choose a favorite color, then I'll be disappointed with anything that's not that color. I'll want to paint it or cure it, when the very act of coloring something is an irritating, largely superfluous idea that wastes time and money."
No response from the machine. The walls shift and warp as we coast along quietly for a few moments. "That's not a real answer-"
"You see..." I interrupt Shaw. "... My mom wasn't a military officer or a businesswoman; No hard charging motivator was there to give me advice on academy applications or solid investments. My dad wasn't some charmer, with big ideas, big balls, with a trillion acolytes screaming their name on the web to elevate me to stardom after he died." A speck at the end of the fissure, a little circle of brightly burning ember, marks the source of everything. The end of our journey is close.
"So, if you're wondering why I don't have a favorite color, it's because while other people worry about dumb stuff like wallpaper and the effect its hue has on the greater meaning of life, I'm out here in space ripping pieces off of spaceships!" My gloves soak into the quick with sweat as I accelerate towards the circle of fire, it's approach sending my heart throbbing. "Are there any survivors on this ship?"
"What?" Shaw's voice warbles, his processor likely stumbling over my quick question. "I... I'm not equipped to detect-"
"That's right! Because I didn't give you the equipment to detect people." Not people. Lifeforms. "Because I don't want to know if any lifeforms are fighting for their lives around me, because I'm fighting for my life right now! Plus, homeless people don't fucking pay much when you rescue them!"
"Cassie..." The AI's voice actually sounds disappointed. The entrance is so close.
"So if it seems like I'm risking a lot here..." I stumble over my words. A little fear has pushed to the surface, passed the lust and hunger. "I am! I'm risking it all." I try to rub sweat from my forehead, but end up just slapping my hand against my helmet face. A dumb, greasy smear across the glass mocks my nervous action. "How far to the lode?"
Shaw answers but I don't listen. I don't care how far it is- the mouth of the tunnel is meters away. I'm not stopping now. The narrow molten fissure gives way. Shaw takes his place up and to the right of my cockpit.
I stare unblinking into a white-hot womb of gestating hurricanes and dying tornadoes. There is broken method and twisted order to the chaos. Progressively more massive and terrible storms of raw atomic energy fatten themselves on the corpses of dying mini-stars and twisting nebula. A small supernova twists and struggles with itself against the weeping, oozing walls. Blazing teardrops of molten metal slough through the maelstrom.
The titan firestorm breaks and twists against my target. The jet-black core stands solid in the center of the chamber. Two vertical towers press the orb from the top and bottom, the bulb pillar stark, and unwavering against the backdrop of oblivion. While the core remains immobile and intact, the ceiling of the chamber has begun to ooze it's way down along the tower.
"Shaw." My pod swells and shifts in the waves of hell. "Can you tell if any of the rods are intact?" Sweat drips into my mouth and around my chin as I ride through the storm.
"My sensors fried when we entered the chamber." The surface of Shaw's tight, balled body is red hot. I cringe at the thought of what my pod looks like. "However, my last visual reading indicated that the containment pillar still has almost all of its fuel rods."
I whip my pod hard to the left, as a giant glob of molten tungsten drifts lazily across my path. Shaw doesn't change course, and he barely misses slapping right into the orb.
"Shaw!" His body is so bright, his little engine burning steadily. "Stay with me."
His response is warbled. "I'm having trouble navigating."
"Are you all right?" The storm whips across my cockpit, obscuring my view of my one friend in this chaotic whirl.
"Tight as a tick, slick." He actually manages to do a little front flip. "Although, I feel about as useful."
I laugh out-loud. "You leave this to me then. Stay put and wait by the entrance to this chamber. Can you make it back?"
"Should be simple." His chime response erases my doubt. "Don't die."
Licking the sweat from my lips, I accelerate through the storm to the top section of the tower. The fire seems to part for me, my surge into the center uninterrupted. As I approach the skyscraper sized containment tower I thumb my 'claw' control. I don't have any fancy magnet bulbs, or force tractor emitters. No, I will literally be grabbing a building- sized plutonium fuel rod out of a melting reactor with a dorky, three fingered claw on the bottom of my pod.
It's not even a real claw; just three giant prongs that open and close. No wrist, no fingers, no real dexterity. Three stupid clamps that tighten. The rest of the work is done by my pod's engine, and the simple lack of gravity.
A massive, bone shattering vibration shakes my pod. I bounce in my seat like a rag-doll, recovering just in time to see a massive section of the tower shift. One of the fuel rods detaches, and two little air jets fire, sending the rod sliding perfectly along the surface of the tower and out of view. I rotate my pod nose-down to watch the descent. The rod slams into the core.
The storm is invigorated, fed by fresh radioactive material. Whatever computer error or human mistake that led to the core reaching this out-of-control state is still cycling. I have to work fast.
Pressing into my seat I finagle the controls carefully- I get one try. I orient my ship nose-up, 'claw' against the tower. Slowly, I descend, landing my pod on the side of the tower. My vessel shudders from the careful landing. I thumb the 'claw'.
My pod creaks and rumbles. So much could go wrong. The heat coating could rub off, the claw could break, a hydraulic actuator could break. A gust from the storm could tear me off the pillar and embed me the oozing walls. But, it doesn't. I don't even have to spend one ounce of engine power to secure my payday. The fuel rod I'm holding releases, and the little air jets fire.
Choking on sweat and surprise, I throttling my engines to full power. I can't resist the energy of the air-jets as the pillar surges towards the core, but I do pull the rod away from the tower. It's path disrupted, the massive fuel rod falls, with me attached, down past the massive onyx core.
I feel like I am going to vomit from the combination of sheer joy and nauseating vertigo as my descent through the hell-storm gradually slows to a halt. "Shaw!" My engines are at full power. The pillar has stabilized. "Shaw!" Every move after this is straight out, straight home, forward movement to safety. "I got it!"
"Good!" Shaw's voice is mixed with static. "Come back to the fissure!" The storm seems to rise and quake at my victory. My heart is in my ears. Acceleration is slow, but I am tugging the fuel rod towards the exit. I can't believe it. I've got it. I won.
Seat-straps tight, heart throbbing, pod straining painfully against the mass of the fuel rod, I navigate to the maw of molten fire leading out into the cool of space. "Shaw!" I can't see him. "Where are you?! Respond. I'm at the exit!" I twist the throttle backward, anxiety mixing in the storm of my victorious soul. I am literally bobbing up and down in my seat. "Where the hell are you?!"
My pod accelerates against my command. I twist the throttle off and thumb the control-lock to cut any accidental input. Nothing. "I'm sorry." Shaw's voice is so calm. "I lied."
"Shaw?!" I'm in the molten fissure, accelerating steadily away from the core. "Where are you?" No answer. "Respond!"
"Upon entering the core chamber I noted the deterioration of the tower and incalculable nature of the fusion storm." Oh, no. "After you left me I linked with the ship's computer and activated the fuel rod jettison process." No, no, no-no. "Opening my long-rang radio antenna damaged my navigation systems and compromised my processor."
I kick the control stick. Nothing. "You idiot! Where are you? I'm coming back!"
"I'm uncomfortable with you spending an extended amount of time in such a dangerous environment. You have a fuel rod. You're done here."
"Hahaha, yeah good one!" I grab the control sticks and rattle them back and forth, back and forth. "Let's go! "Stop goofing around!" I punch the screen. "Let me go!"
"If you tried to recover me, there's only a seventy-five point nine percent chance you would survive. Alone, you have almost a ninety percent chance."
My smile of insane terror presses my hot cheeks against the pads. "See! That's stupid!" I clap madly inside the cockpit, applauding Shaw's stupidity. "Fifteen percent is nothing! Nothing!" I kick the screen, shattering the glass with my rubber heel. "We can make it!"
Nothing I do, none of my violence, can stop the override. The pod surges through the tube of ember lava. Shaw says nothing. I wait for him to change his mind, lips tight, eyes watering. What have I done? "You bitch!" I scream at the cockpit. "You giving up on me!?" Cracks shift and open in my rage-filled voice, the anger melting into fear and sorrow. I yell everything, anything I think will make Shaw stop. "I order you to stop!" I can see the black dot of space ahead. My pod is almost out of the ship. "I own you!" I'm screaming. "You have to obey me!"
"Artificial intelligence are born complete." His little voice is so far away now. I tighten my face to silence my blabbering, choking on the sobs. "We know our destiny in life from the very beginning."
"No." Don't leave. Don't go.
"But, humans have to struggle for it, wasting away their fragile lives in a sprint towards a blind, unsure future. Worse. Some die never knowing their purpose. It's our belief, the highest honor for my kind, to accelerate a human soul towards their destiny."
A little image flickers on the shattered view screen. A little cartoon loop plays: An animation of Shaw doing an aileron roll. "Cassie. I hope I helped you find your destiny."
The little cartoon Shaw is painted blue.
Space is so black, Asher a dull blue speck so far away. The dying vessel burning behind me continues its worthless spin. My pod's engines finally cut, the fuel rod's smoldering body slowly icing over in the thermal shock of absolute zero. Shaw's blue ghost twists for me, the little maneuver making me gasp and cry every time.
I close my eyes against the nothing. Tears stream as I mourn the better part of my soul, abandoned in the twisting husk of desire and greed. Shaw. I'll never forget you.
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