The story features a character, Teddy Lovelace, whose letters to home also appear in the setting book, and a clue about his fate during the disaster that destroyed the first colony on Rusalka.
He's intentionally a man of his era: a little dull, cautious, and a bit of a sad sack. Not to mention the kind of nice guy who desperately needs to hear Frank Zappa's "Broken Hearts are for Assholes", only that song is probably blocked on his colony.
I wanted to share it here as a change of pace from my usual content.
There is a little gore and oblique sexual references in this one, as fair warning.
A Day in the Life
Ted woke up as the lights slowly brightened in his room. He reached across the bed to the empty space beside him. He sighed sharply through his nose. He still hadn't gotten used to sleeping alone in bed alone. The time was visible on his ceiling
"You woke me up two minutes early," he grunted at his apartment. It responded in a feminine mid-Atlantic:
"You have listed getting to work on time a high priority. You have struggled for five days to get out of the door at your designated leaving time. Waking you two minutes early will make your day run more smoothly and reduce stress. You have had eight hours and thirteen minutes of sleep. This time is within the Copernicus Healthy Living™ Program tolerances."
He grunted. The "™" wasn't read aloud, but the computer had a way of saying trademarked titles that made you hear it anyway.
"I'm considering changing my health program subscription."
"You are very grumpy this morning," his apartment replied. "You should not make subscription or purchase decisions until you have had breakfast and your shower."
The coffee maker on his counter gurgled. The dispenser on his wall chimed; breakfast was delivered. He picked up his cup of coffee. That, at least, was something decent about the morning.
"Nova Roma needs slightly less sugar," he told the computer.
His climbing mood came crashing back down as he noticed the picture frames laying face down on his personal item shelf. A stab of pain. He turned his back on his treasures and dug his chunk out of the slot in the wall. Fit Formula™: Cinnamon Toast Breakfast block, the gel coating announced.
He dipped a corner in his coffee to start the melting process, then held his breakfast over the sink until the packaging had melted off. It crackled in that expected rice cereal bar texture as he bit in… but the taste!
His apartment read his grimace.
"Fit Formula™ welcomes customer feedback. You have shown dissatis- faction with your meal. They offer you a refund and two free meals if you will give feedback on what you didn't like about your breakfast."
Tell them that I grew up on a flavor farm, so I know what real cinnamon tastes like. This stuff tastes like bad Valentine's Day candy. Too artificial, way too sharp.
"Fit Formula™ thanks you for your feedback, and hopes you will enjoy your complimentary lunch and supper."
In the bathroom, Ted stopped to admire himself in the mirror. Graying at the temples, nose a little too big, worry lines around the eyes… he'd lost the 4 kg put on since the breakup. It was even starting to show a little muscle…his gut sank as he thought about her. A deep, cold loneliness chilled him.
Guilty, as the water streamed over him, he called up some favorite erotic pictures.
The punishing thoughts came fast and furious. Sad and lonely, Ted, that's you. It's no cure for loneliness, yet, here we go again…
"Your personal computing time this month has now reached twice your recommended use. The Copernicus Clear Mind™ Mental Health Program recommends isolating future use to personal communication for at least one week."
Ted sighed and shut off the shower, banishing the images with a swipe on the shower wall. He dried himself off and selected boxers and a Copernicus Universal jumpsuit. The powder blue made him look pale and tired.
"Message from your sister:
'Good morning, Spaceman. Hope you are feeling better, today. Tell me about the Loquat jam when you have a chance. Now go make those robots beg for mercy!'"
Joanne's messages always made him smile. He'd been getting them every few days since she heard Lana had left him.
Work for Ted was like work for most people: an exercise in staying awake and not letting himself get distracted.
Coffee helped, of course. Even the burnt swill the coffee stocked in the crawler. But there was only so much you could drink while watching a screen split into eight parts with eight complicated status reports. And while his work issued space suit collected his urine, he hated the feeling of simply peeing at his desk. He tried to time his coffee so he would be able to go to the washroom during a base delivery.
What really kept him alert was tinkering. Tech manuals spread across his desk, a pile of parts on the work-bench pages of coffee-ringed sketches, he adjusted, tested, and re-tested minor modifications, logging 'maintenance' on his timing app as he spared a glance now and again to the monitors.
But today, they reminded him of her. He groaned and put down the half- finished drill bit he was tweaking, and closed his eyes, letting the cool blue light of the monitors wash over him.
A shift in color, a purple splash across his eyelids twitched his eyes open. Ted scanned the monitors for the offending red warning text. Whatever it was, it had been a momentary blip.
No - it was more than a blip.It was a much-needed distraction. Ted called up the endless streaming notification logs of the ‘bots. At least it was something to do. He was still scrolling on the third log when a comm call came in.
The perpetually grinning plastic face of Mallory Chu, his supervisor blocked the streaming logs on his terminal.
“Teddy! Hey, bud, how is it going?”
“Hi, Mr. Chu. For a day sitting on top of a volcano, it’s pretty peaceful. I’m halfway to next week’s quota now.” Ted fidgeted nervously. Something about Mr. Chu set his teeth itching. He tried to relax his clenching shoulders.
“Glad to hear it, Ted! I cannot fault your work performance.In fact, I have been talking about you while discussing a very big upcoming project. You are a hell of a bot smasher, Teddy.”
“That’s - ah -great news, Mr. Chu.”
“Ted.. Ted… Teddy… Call me Mal already, would you. You’ve been on the planet for almost a year now And it is a small planet. Too much hierarchy is bad for little colonies ”
“Okay… Mal. What can I do for you?”
“Look, Ted, I am not going to complain about the work output up on the lava fields. You are over a week ahead, and those drones up there are better than clockwork. But I have a concern.”
“Concern?” Ted took a pull from his cold coffee to hide the tic he knew was coming on at the corner of his mouth.
“Ted, I got a notification today about you getting a second mental health flag this month.”
Ted froze with the mug to his lips.
“Look, don’t worry. What you actually have been up to, that’s none of my business. But it doesn’t take a detective to notice that Lana Gimaldi has just moved into new quarters, and you both shuffled your club memberships. And I’d be a fool if I didn’t keep an ear out when I was headed to the water cooler.”
Ted finally swallowed the cold coffee and set it down, trying not to shake… or cry.
“Ted it is plain to see that you and Doctor Gimaldi are broken-up. And, for you, it's a hard one.”
“I would really rather not talk about it.”
“No… I get it. I am your boss. You don’t walk to talk about it with me. But, Ted, you have to. Up here, your mental health is the company’s concern. And this is a small planet. I need to make sure everyone is in a position where they can do their part. When I get mental health flags, I have to ask some questions.”
“I didn’t think I had signed away all of my privacy, Mr. Chu.”
“You haven’t. It isn’t like I know exactly what is going on. Just that you have spent a lot of time on the computer lately. More than is healthy. You have not been enjoying your food. And you have been skipping your clubs. I need to know that you are working on it.”
“I promise you. I am working on it. I am getting help from my family. And I am working out. I have just been doing a lot of research. To help me recover.”
“Okay, Ted. That’s what I wanted to know. And it’s good to hear. I was thinking of booking you some extra time in the blue room. And making you an appointment with Ms. Sandivh for some counseling. Is that something you think would help?”
Ted’s jaw popped as he spoke. He was suddenly aware that his teeth were hurting.
“I – I will take the Blue Room time. But I am not sure I want to talk to a counselor. My sister. She’s been keeping me on the line.”
Chu nodded and smiled his broad, artificial smile.
“Okay, Ted. I will trust you. But I don;t want any more Clear Mind notifications. Please. I see big things for you, Ted. A big opportunity. And now I am worried that I might have to let you miss it. If you don’t show me that you are engaging with your community here, too.”
“I understand, Mr. Chu.”
“Good. And it’s Mal. Please.”
Ted was never so relieved to suddenly notice a screen full of red, flashing text in his life.
“Sorry, I have to go. I have alerts all over the board. Looks like something is up with my miners”. He tilted the camera toward the flashing board. ”I promise, I will be back to the Low-G golf club tomorrow. And the garden club on Friday. You don’t have to worry about me. It’s just an adjustment.”
“Alright. We are relying on you, Ted. We need you to keep yourself healthy up here. You go take care of those miners.”
Ted let out a sigh and thumped his forehead on his desk before turning his attention to the monitors.
Small scale seismic activity, atmospheric errors, a cascade of motion alerts. One digger reported serious damage. Terrain maps showed a fresh thermal vent just a few hundred meters uphill from the crawler. Ted grunted. Despair can wait.
The indicators on his crawler door didn't suggest that anything would melt his suit. He sealed his helmet and grabbed his toolkit.
Outside the air was thick with smoke, and a fine yellow dust covered everything; the hulking Derro mining robots were coated top to bottom, but carried on cutting minerals from the Earth. Ted's helmet warned him that it was crystallized sulfur.
Picking his way across ragged rocks that smoked under his boots he made his way through the mining robots. The sulfur was churned up in places, and in others had settled into sizzling liquid pools. After a moment, he realized that he’d started walking the wrong way. He’d expected the damaged robot to be uphill, closest to the fresh fissure. But none of the robots uphill were reporting damage. He swiveled around to see one derro much further downhill lying on its side adding its own whitish plume of smoke to the deep yellow-gray of the volcano.
As he walked towards the downed machine, he commed the crawler’s computer.
“Erebor, show me the order in which the errors happened. Visually.”
His heads-up display lit up with blue lights starting uphill and then followed a narrow trajectory from the vent past the ruined robot. The errors formed a narrow trail that lay almost perfectly along the line of the churned-up sulfur.
Scowling, Ted crept cautiously to the damaged Derro. Where he expected dents and rent metal, he instead saw a shiny, hole rimmed in rippling, pitted metal, smoke pouring from shorted circuit boards beneath. The outer aluminum hull of the Derro had streaks across that were clear of sulfur, and soot. Gleaming as fresh as the day it rolled out of the fabricator.
His eyes traced the path of the blue line downhill towards the colony.
About a kilometer down he saw motion. Not the smoke or heat- shimmer he was used to – he was sure something was moving downhill at a slow, bobbing, organic pace.
Calling up a holographic disc of commands, he told erebor to deploy its scout, and designated the area where he swore he saw moving shapes.
“Anvil base, this is Ted Lovelace up in sector three. Do you copy?”
“Hey, Teddy, Julie here. I’m filling in for Xi while she is sick. What’s up… er, I mean, I copy.”
“Yeah, hi, Julie. I just had a few fresh thermal vents open up here, and now I have something moving up here. You might not believe it, but I think I am seeing something alive up here.”
“Alive? Here? Did Mal put you up to this to pull my chain?”
“I’m not a chain pulling kind of guy, Julie. Listen, I have a quadcopter in the air headed for it. I’ll send you the feed.”
Ted sent a copy of the Drone’s stream to the head office..
“Hang on, Teddy. I might be a minute figuring this software out. Xi, liked to turn off a lot of AI functions.”
“Don’t worry. I’m staying put.”
As the yellow-dusted obsidian landscape buzzed by in a window on Ted’s visor, he leaned over the smoldering drone again.
Gingerly he reached out a gloved hand and touched the pitting. The fingertips of his gauntlets came back smoking.
An AI voice chimed over his comm.
“Theodore Lovelace, you have just uttered an obscenity on an open communication channel. A small fine will be deducted from your accounts and placed in the community swear jar fund, which is currently saving up for - a ping-pong table for Anvil Station - thank you for your donation, and try to watch what you say next time. Clean language leads to Clear Minds™.”
Ted grunted as he turned his attention back to the great, beetle-like crawler. He needed to get in and check how bad the damage was to his gauntlet. He watched the fingertips pour white smoke, and wondered if he would start to feel his skin burning next. His helmet said that it was 152.8°C where he was standing.
He made three steps before an ululating noise, a hateful mix of the cutting of glass, steel on dry ice, and the dusk call of whippoorwill assaulted his ears, and then the bulk was on him.
It was twice his length, and heavy, a glistening, tubular yellow body. Splayed, gecko-like feet pinned his legs, and a pair of lashing tails battered at his helmet.
The worst part of the thing was its head… a twitching mass of stubby blue-tipped tendrils, like a sea anemone grafted to the end of a salamander. Expressionless black eyes ringed the writhing mouth,
Ted let out a scream as the thing lowered the tentacles to his leg, and the burning started in earnest.
Panicking he grabbed the first tool he could find on its belt and lashed out. A soldering iron pierced rubbery flesh and the creature reared back, spitting a clout of pink goo.
“Erebor! Harvest organic matter! Derro Four! Have Derro Four harvest organic matter!” Ted howled as he grabbed hold of a holographic reticle and waved it at the creature.
It lunged for him again, then shrieked as Derro Four reached out a set of metal claws and dragged the thrashing creature towards an open slot full of spiked grinders on its fore.
Tuning out the horrid screams Ted looked down at his leg.just above the knee, there was a mass of pink sludge and smoking bone mingling with the liquefied remains of his armor.
The planet suddenly seemed so far away. Even the last horrid screeches of the creature as it was ground to pulp by the Derro seemed far away. He thought of… Lana? Did he want to dream of Lana? No. Not Lana. The sun playing through the loquat tree leaves. The old swing. He and his sister Joannie, eating ice cream made with antique tools on a hot summer day.
That was a good memory. He would love to spend a day with Joannie and her kids…
Ted bit his cheek, fresh pain to wake him up. His drone feed showed a writhing pack of the creatures slithering down the hill towards Anvil.
His shaking hands took hold of a pair of tools. He screamed and cried in his helmet as he fired up the laser cutter and cut himself clean of the liquefied mess of his leg. The spray foam sealant that followed went everywhere. It took him an eternity to cover the wound.
For a moment he passed out. Then, someone was talking to him.
“...for your donation, and try to watch what you say next time. Clean language leads to Clear Minds™.”
“Julie. Julie, are you there?”
“Teddy? Sorry Teddy, I only just got the feed live. I forgot you were on hold.”
“Julie. Those things are hostile. Get someone to make some deterrents fast. Send out Derro if you have to. Julie, I’m hurt bad. I want…” He could feel the adrenaline ebbing. “I want to go home.”
And then he slept.
Ted woke up. He didn’t bother reaching out for Lana. She wouldn’t be there. That was… fine? Good? Okay. He was okay with okay.
“Teddy! You’re awake!” He looked up, his blurry vision made out Malcolm Chu’s face. This was the first time his smile looked real. “Can you sit up?”
Ted pulled himself up to the edge of his bed. His right leg seemed numb. Strange. Horrifying memories came slithering back. He looked down and saw himself kicking a new limb; white plastic and carbon fiber. Ted’s guts lurched. His head pounded.
“Whoah, easy there. I didn’t mean ‘Get out of bed’, Ted… er… I’m sorry about your leg, Ted.”
Ted swallowed hard, pushing panic down. He lost a leg. He has to learn how to use a cybernetic one now. It’s fine. The leg means that he is alive, and he will go get to see Joannie.
“I- I’m just glad to be alive, Mal. What happened?”
“You’re a hero. That’s what happened. Jesus. Julie saw those things coming thanks to your feed and sounded every alarm in the place.
We speed-fabbed a bunch of screamers that would shock anything that touched them and laid down a line. Then we chased them off with Derro and Crawlers.
“I had someone come get you as soon as I could. Julie was frantic trying to figure out how to arrange a medivac.
“And not a second too soon, Ted. There were more of those things coming up out of a fissure just a couple of hundred meters away from you.”
“Was anyone hurt?”
“Trust me, we are Ted.”
Malcolm Chu clapped a friendly shoulder on Ted’s shoulder, and offered another, real smile.
“And you, Ted. We are thanking you. You’re the badass of the base. A genuine hero.
“You’ll probably get a fortune in story rights. After all, it’s not just anyone who cuts their own leg off with a laser then glues themself to the spot with foam. Hell, I’ll see that you do. You call me when you need a lawyer.”
The base medic wandered in and made an exasperated noise at Malcolm over the casual treatment of her patient.
“Look, Ted. After the trauma you’ve been through, I’m going to bet that you want to get as far away from this planet as you possibly can.” We owe you that at least.”
“I want to go back home to my parents’ farm on Earth. Visit my sister and her kids. Sell those story rights, maybe. Maybe look up an old girlfriend or two while I am at it.”
“You aren’t thinking about giving up the Life, though, are you Ted? Space?”
“No. I just need some downtime to get my head on straight.”
“That’s good. Look, Ted. I have a big assignment coming up. Huge. And I get to pick my own people, but only the best astros will do. We’re going to need six solid bot smashers. I would be stupid not to ask you to be one of them. But it’s soon. I’d rather not find someone else for the job.”
“How soon are we talking?”
“Enough time to visit family. But probably not enough time to get too involved with any old girlfriends. A few months.”
The Medic cleared her throat.
“Where’s the job?”
“You’ve been out long enough to miss the official announcement, otherwise you’d’ve guessed. Novorbus just won the biggest bidding war in history. I’m going to lead a project on a beautiful little ocean planet called Rusalka.”
“Any life on this Rusalka?”
“Just protozoa. No acid-spitting space newts. I promise”
“I might just take you up on that, Malcolm.”.
Ted watched Malcolm go, and let himself be put back in bed. Glad for the first time in a long time to be alone with his thoughts.