The Pilot

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The Pilot

It is near the middle of Ganymede's 85-hour-long "night". The sky above is a faint cobalt-blue glow, and only the brightest stars are visible. To the west, the enormity of Jupiter hangs just above the horizon. Its apparent size is that of a dinner plate, held at arm's length. Calling it "night" is a stretch, because although the Sun is below the horizon, the face of Jupiter is illuminated, brightening the sky more than thirty-five full Moons would on Earth. The result is a sort of quasi-daylight that lasts several standard days, before the faint distant Sun appears in the east.

Miranda walks down the sandy market street, wearing her favorite leather aviator jacket and blue jeans. Her obedient droid Beth follows two steps behind her, dressed smartly in a blue uniform of a quasi-naval style, but with neither an insignia nor a rank. It is a look befitting a civilian spaceship crewmember. The crisp -30C air of the partially-terraformed world doesn't bother either of them; as long as their joints are properly sealed, their circuits won't be exposed to condensation or frost. Occasionally, a human can be found in this place, shivering in a thick woolen parka and a rebreather mask, but most of the denizens of the Ombos Bazaar are like Miranda and Beth: non-biological. Mechanical and electronic.

Miranda and Beth turn right at a familiar intersection, cross the street, and enter a dilapidated structure that used to be a spacecraft's cargo hold. They pass down a hallway, through several sets of heavy automatic doors. It's not quite an airlock; it doesn't need to be. Each segment of the hall is warmer than the last, creating a gradient from barely-survivable to human-comfortable. Through the last door, a blast of warm air immediately greets them. The smart transparent polymer on the surface of Miranda's eyes resists the ambient moisture that is trying to form a layer of frost on her cold body. Her vision kept clear, Miranda looks at a familiar foyer. It's modest affair with some fake plants, a simple table with some chairs, a mini fridge in the corner, and a wide business counter with some computer consoles. The counter is staffed by... nobody.

"Tharsis?" Miranda walked around to the side, peeking through an open door into the machine shop behind, "Tharsis, you there?" "Oy!" Came a distant voice. "Stay right there, I'm coming!" Miranda waited patiently as Tharsis came from the back of his shop, holding a robotic girl by the hand. Tharsis was a burly man in his fifties, dressed in his typical work overalls. The girl, modeled after a woman half Tharsis' age, was nearly naked, save for some simple underwear. Tharsis released the robot as he reached the foyer, and embraced Miranda in a big bear hug. If he felt how cold Miranda's body was, he didn't show it. "Mir! It has been too long. How have you been doing?" "Business is good," Miranda said, "and I'm well. I'm afraid I'm in a bit of a hurry, though. Is she the one?" She nodded to the robot girl on the side. "Yes, she's the one I told you about. Top quality. Sold by the CPG a few years ago to a private asteroid miner, who then sold her to me last week to make some quick cash." Miranda walked up to the robot girl. "What is your name?" "My designation is QRJ5011." The girl replied matter-of-factly.

Miranda narrowed her eyes, and turned back to Tharsis. "You told me she was an upload. A human mind in a robot body, like me." Tharsis nodded. "She is." "Tharsis," Miranda spoke softly, in a tone dripping with a sort of maternal condescension, "how many people do you know named 'QRJ5011'?" "It's the truth!" he said, raising his hands defensively. "I have the paperwork." "Show me." Tharsis walked back behind the desk, ducked down, and produced several documents from a drawer. "I got these from the Ganymede Licensing Bureau a few days ago." Miranda took the documents and passed them back over her shoulder to Beth. "Check these. Have the CAT's computer query both the Ganymede Licensing Bureau and the Callisto Provisional Government." She said, not even looking back at the droid. "Yes, captain." Beth's eyes opened wide as she began to visually scan the papers one page at a time.

As Beth went about her work, Tharsis tried to explain the situation to Miranda. "She was drafted by the Callisto Revolutionary Navy when the war broke out. She was uploaded, mechanized, and served as a pilot in their fifth fleet. When they lost the war, the Callisto Provisional Government sold her and other 'equipment' to pay for their debts. Her next owner was a nickel asteroid miner. I don't know all the details, but he ended up putting her on the market. I knew you were looking for a pilot, so I bought her cheap. I haven't even tried to modify her. She's got some thick control programming that's blocking a lot of her memory and personality."

"That's the problem." Miranda motioned to the fembot girl, who stood silently with a blank expression on her face, staring straight ahead at nothing. "The C.R.N. wiped her. I want a pilot who is capable of independent thought and creative problem-solving. I don't need another droid," Miranda glanced back at Beth, "I have plenty of those." "She's still in there, trust me. Have I ever let you down?" Miranda sighed. "And you don't know her real name?" "Couldn't find it. Maybe you can do better." "You can't expect me to pay full price for this." "Mir..." "Her mind is Swiss cheese. Does this 'bot even remember basic spaceflight?" "Ask her." Tharsis said with a confident smile. Miranda turned to the idle fembot. "QRJ5011, if I'm using a Hohmann Transfer to move to a higher orbit, am I performing a normal burn, or an anti-normal burn?" The fembot blinked. "Neither. Under ideal conditions, you are performing a prograde burn at periapsis, to take advantage of the Olberth Effect."

Tharsis's grin took on an I-told-you-so quality. Miranda glanced sideways in his direction. "Come on, that was an easy one." She turned back to the fembot. "What ships have you flown?" "A Midas-class mining barge, and a Miasmos-class hauler." Miranda's eyebrow raised slightly. The fembot had used the slang "hauler" rather than the typical "freighter". "What did you fly for the Callisto Revolutionary Navy?" The fembot stood still and silent for several uncomfortable seconds, then she turned and responded. "I'm sorry, that information has been removed from my memory." Miranda rolled her eyes. "Fucking C.R.N.," She muttered. "Have you ever flown a Hermes-class interceptor?" "I don't think so." "Do you want to?" The fembot's face lit up. "You have a Hermes?" For a moment, the security programming and the obedience protocols and the circuitry had disappeared, and Miranda knew she was just looking at a girl who loved to fly spaceships. "The paperwork is good." Said Beth. It didn't matter, Miranda had already made her decision. "Pay Tharsis the amount we originally agreed upon, and file the forms necessary to transfer this fembot over to me." The droid nodded in acknowledgement, and began completing the task within her networked head. Miranda turned to the nameless fembot. "I have a job offer for you." QRJ5011 blinked in confusion. "A... job?"

"That's right. A job, with proper wages." "I am programmed to obey your commands. I... don't understand being paid." "I prefer to have employees, not slaves." Tharsis, bemused, motioned to to Beth. "Do you pay her, too?" "Beth's different. She's just a mindless drone. Isn't that right, Beth?" "Yes, captain. Also, the transfer is complete." The robot spoke with no hint of emotion. Tharsis looked at his own data pad, then nodded in confirmation. "Always a pleasure, Mir. Are you sure you can't stay for a drink?" "I would, but I'm on a schedule. It was nice seeing you, Tharsis, say hi to Maria to me." "Of course. Someday, maybe consider adding some time in your schedule to socialize. I remember when you didn't have a clock in your head." "Next time. I promise." Tharsis nodded, then motioned toward the nameless fembot. "You'll like this one, Mir. Give her a chance." Miranda nodded and turned. "QRJ5011, do you have any belongings?" "She does not." Tharsis answered for the fembot who was still processing the thought of owning belongings. "All right then. Come on ye swabs, back to the ship." Miranda strode for the door. Beth followed a few paces behind. QRJ5011, realizing an awkward second late that she was expected to follow too, hastened after them.

Walking back through the cold streets of Ombos Bazaar, Miranda looked back at her new acquisition. QRJ5011 showed no sign of discomfort at the subzero air, nor any modesty at walking in public wearing only underwear. No surprises there for a fembot. And yet, in stark contrast to her robotic side, she was looking up and around at the sky. Her head swiveled to and fro, and her eyes were alight taking it all in. She was enjoying the stars. No, not just stars, Miranda realized. The girl's eyes fixed on a particular point of light above the eastern horizon. Callisto. The girl glanced back, to the west. Io. Her head dipped down, looking at the ground, as if looking through the ground. "Europa," Miranda thought, "she just calculated the position of Europa below the horizon, using the positions of known astronomical waypoints. She's navigating, without being ordered to." Again, she felt a warm glow of reassurance that she had purchased the right fembot.

They continued onward to the modest series of landing pads and hangers that billed itself as a "space port". If she could call a few robots a "crew", Miranda figured Ombos Space Port could call themselves a "space port" all they liked. Such as it was, Miranda didn't need Ombos Space Port's services for very much or very long. She was paying for the private landing pad by the hour, which only made financial sense for a quick on-and-off trip to this moon. One perfunctory ID scan and a nod later, they were in their private landing bay, its volume dominated by a single spaceship: the Clear Air Turbulence.

The Clear Air Turbulence (or CAT, for short), was a Hermes-class interceptor that had seen service in the war. Like her new fembot pilot, the vessel had been sold by the Callisto Provisional Government several years ago (stripped of its weaponry of course), in an attempt to recoup their staggering financial shortfalls. Its previous name had been some haughty nonsense like "The Glorious Triumph of Ragnar's Charge" or some such. Miranda had immediately renamed it after a fictional ship from an ancient sci-fi novel, taking care to follow all the proper procedures and ceremonies and rites to avoid the bad luck of renaming a ship. Spaceship captains, much like old Earth mariners, are a superstitious lot.

Upon boarding, Miranda headed straight for the bridge, followed by Beth and QRJ5011. It was cramped, with a few nooks for control consoles, not the kind of wide-open living room you see on TV shows. Miranda's remaining crew, two more droids nearly identical to Beth, were seated at two stations. "Aleph, are we ready to fly?" "Yes, captain." replied the crew fembot on the left. "Gimel, do we have clearance for takeoff?" "At your discretion, captain." responded the other fembot, in an identical voice. Miranda nodded, then made a grandiose motion toward the "helm", a control seat positioned center and forward. "QRJ, please take the helm." "Yes, master." The fembot, conspicuously out of place in her underwear surrounded by others wearing uniforms, took the seat. Unbidden, her hands started flying across the controls. She pulled up diagnostics, flight charts, sensor data and on and on, performing a rapid series of pre-flight checks. She was also, Miranda realized with a grin, customizing her own interface to make it more familiar to her.

"Helm, do you believe we are ready for takeoff?" "Yes, master." "You may address me as captain." "Yes..." the fembot paused. Her face made an uncomfortable expression. "Error 544." Miranda's eyes narrowed. "Are you okay?" "Yes... Error 544. No... Error 544." The fembot's face took on a worried, pleading expression. Miranda's eyebrows went up, then her face softened. She walked up close to QRJ5011 and spoke softly and gently. "Do you need to call me 'master'? You may do that if you wish." "Yes, master." The fembot immediately looked relieved. "Thank you, master." "We really need to get your programming sorted out, kid. But don't fret. I know some people. Helm, take us up. We're heading to Himalia."

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