Far Side's Witness: A short short space opera story
DRIVE-BY STORIES #13
People forgot seasons when they left the Earth. And why not? Harlan mused, tea cupped in vacuum-scarred hands thick with manipulator glove calluses. Artificial habitats lacked the seasons of the homeworld, those chaotic and mostly unpredictable shifts in environmental conditions. Steam rose quickly into the cool, dry air of the galley, transferring the heat from his tea faster than he drank it. The tea carried its own scent mingled with blueberries.
They always had blueberries. Forget about seasons, those didn't matter. Few people, Harlan knew, even remembered that the sixth month was named "June," like the girlfriend he'd had once back on the Relativity's Promise. People didn't know that "June" was the start of the cold, frigid months of winter. Or was it the start of summer?
Had to be winter, the month and the girlfriend both ending up the same. Maybe it mattered which hemisphere you lived in on the planet. Didn't matter where he'd been on the Relativity's Promise—June never changed. Asexual. At least when it came to Harlan. Less so with some of her other partners.
He took a long drink of the cooling tea. That was all a long time ago. It didn't matter now, out here on the Far Side, the only biological crewmember on board a ship of not quiet rational bots and droids. Even EV-li—"she" looked, smelled, felt as real as any woman he'd ever known, but she wasn't at all what she appeared. Didn't actually have a gender, for one thing. Didn't have human emotions as much as she did a perfect job of emulating them. Right now EV-li was several inches shorter than Harlan, with long wavy brown hair that hung down over fine narrow shoulders. Her breasts, perfection, large and eager for his touch, hung over a small waist and generous hips. From her electric smile, to her soulful eyes, and her soothing, musical voice, Evie hit all of the points he fantasied about when it came to women.
But she could just as easily be a large man with chiseled features and broad shoulders. Or a skeletal old crone, bent nearly in half. Whatever meat-skin, name, or gender that EV-li wanted, she could have. She wore her current skin for him, for Harlan, the Far Side's Witness. To keep him sane and balanced, even though he knew the truth about her, about the ship, and about the crime they continued to commit.
The tea barely held any warmth now. He gulped it down.
A whirr and buzz signaled the arrival of Bob—a scuffed white cylinder body straddling a thin solid wheel. Bob's four arms coiled neatly into spiral recesses in the body. At the top, the body formed a concave bowl that cradled the droid's spherical head. The droid rocked to a stop beside the table, one arm uncoiling to pluck up the empty tea cup and saucer. Glowing blue lights drifted mote-like within Bob's head. It's thoughts?
"Get you anything else, Harlan?"
"Isn't it about time for the demolition?"
The head rotated downward slightly, lights pulsing and moving up around the curve of the head like fish in a bowl. "That's true. You'll be wanted on the bridge. Something to go, perhaps?"
Harlan shook his head, rotating the chair on its mount before standing. Tall enough that his head nearly brushed the galley's ceiling. Taller than Bob.
"Honey, Harlan dear, we do really need to go," said a musical voice near the hatch.
Harlan turned, knowing it was EV-li. She'd worn her sexy uniform today. Blue short shorts that showed off her long golden legs, a blue uniform shirt with the Far Side log embroidered on one sleeve, but she had the shirt tied in front, showing off a taunt midriff, none of the buttons done up so it formed a long open 'V' between her large breasts. The sleeves neatly rolled up past her elbow. Her feet and hands were bare, except for the sparkly orange color of her nails. Her hair sparkled too, strands woven in that glittered in the light. Her face, her body, it was all heart-breaking. A fantasy made real, but not a real woman at all. The quirky, fun smile, the bright eyes, cute ears with dangling diamonds—all designed based on the observations of his reactions, including the involuntary ones.
"I'm coming." His voice came out gruff, almost harsh.
Tiny quirks, micro-expressions, chased across her face. An instant of wounded hurt that he'd talk to her like that, when she was only trying to help. It triggered Harlan's automatic guilty feelings. He hated doing anything to upset EV-li, even knowing what she was, that even those micro-expressions were design to trigger Harlan's feelings.
Logic didn't matter in this case. He couldn't control his biological responses. It didn't matter what he knew, EV-li controlled how he felt. "Sorry. It's hard, you know. That's all."
EV-li took his arm, hugging it so it pressed against her breast, as he stepped out of the galley and walked with her through the wide corridors to the bridge. The dark floors and pale bluish wall panels shone in the lights from the illumination strips. Spot bots looking like adorable pill bugs the size of his hand, crawled about on the surfaces, cleaning, cleaning, keeping the whole ship gleaming and spotless. They made bird-like whistling and singing noises as they worked.
Two decks up, they entered the sweeping amphitheater that was the Far Side's bridge. Many of the crew bots and droids took positions in the tiers that fell away down to the giant forward window-wall. Unlike EV-li, these didn't have humanoid shapes. They didn't wear meat-skins. Quiet beeps and chirrups mixed with the occasional warble as EV-li walked with him down the spiral ramp around the amphitheater to the center circle in front of the window with it's single waist-height podium.
The view out the window showed an artifact, a circular space station rotating in the sunlight from the system's star. Bright streams of energy spewed from spacecraft accelerating away from the station. Too late. Much too late.
"Harlan, this is the Tau-Five station, dedicated to harvesting and refining materials in this system," EV-li said, gesturing gracefully at the view. "It contains a population of nearly fifty thousand humans, along with their companion organisms, plants, animals, and bacteria."
Harlan didn't say anything. He didn't look away. He folded his arms behind his back and waited. Nothing he could do would change what was happening here. He was as helpless as those people on the station and the fleeing ships.
People forgot about seasons in space. He never forgot. It was always winter, wherever the Far Side went, a killing season.
EV-li extended a hand to the podium. A bit of theater, nothing that the ship or its crew actually needed, but she said the symbology was important. Her hand hovered above the clear button, like a large drop of water, on the top of the podium.
"Would you like to do the honors?" she asked.
"No, thank you," Harlan said, by rote, fulfilling his role.
"Very well." EV-li lightly pressed the button.
He imagined that he felt the Far Side shudder as its weapons speared out at the targets, at the station, the ships, at all of those people breathing their last. It didn't shudder, of course, though he did.
Later, Harlan lay in his bed, waiting. EV-li would come soon. He waited, knowing that the ship, the bots, the droids, all of Earth's Children, watched him. Witnessing him. How he reacted to another example of their justice. He didn't think this winter was ever going to end.