This sequel to Jonathan Coulton’s song “Chiron Beta Prime” was written for the 2012 Clarion West Write-a-thon. As a “thank you” to my second group of donors, I’ve published it here under a Creative Commons license (details below). If you enjoy the story, please consider making a tax-deductible donation to Clarion West.
Escape from Chiron Beta Prime
By Karen G. Anderson
Marv Cruz brought his new Nissan Skykraft in for the landing, smack on the spot indicated by the pulsating blue lights. There was only the slightest bump as they settled down on the pad, but in the navigator’s seat beside him Pat was making her usual show of flattening herself against the seatback and holding on for dear life. Marv, already annoyed at having agreed to this hare-brained detour to a godforsaken asteroid, let out a sigh of exasperation.
His wife glared.
“OK! OK!” he said. “We’re here. But I don’t have to like it. Three days of our vacation blown so we can schlep to a mining colony to check up on your flaky sister. She can’t even be bothered to return messages but we have to miss the first two days of my class reunion to visit her on Chiron Beta Prime.”
“We’ve been over this,” Pat snapped. She stood up in the cramped cabin and began rummaging in the overhead locker for their spacesuits.
Marv shrugged. He fiddled with the pilot screen, putting the Skykraft in standby for quick takeoff. He figured they could see the Andersons, stay for whatever passed for lunch on a goddamn mining colony, and be out of here and on their way to Delta Colony in time for the opening of the cadet-alumni Warcraft tournament tomorrow night. He’d brought along custom-forged swords for his entire raiding party.
Pat, who’d maneuvered their spacesuits out of the locker much faster than he’d expected, was leaning over his shoulder.
“Standby!” she shrieked. “You’re putting us in standby? I haven’t seen Naomi in six years and you’re planning to take off again in less than four hours. I can’t believe it!”
“Hey, the landing permit for Chiron Beta Prime specifies that ‘all craft be left in standby, unlocked and available for security inspection by the robots,’” he said, giving the careless shrug she particularly loathed. “Besides, four hours is about three hours more than anybody needs to visit an asteroid. The landscape is rock and ammonia gas, the mines are rock and ammonia gas, the station is made of old, leaky Plastidomes, and the place is run by a bunch of out-dated Bio-bots.
“Remind me what your sister and her dim-bulb husband are doing out here in the first place?” he said, changing the subject.
His wife took the bait, though her tone was peevish.
“Don’t you remember?” she asked. “They came out to the sector with Planetary Science Corp. She was automating biodomes so food preservation could be done by robots. And he’s done some very important work on industrial robotic interfaces on Class M planets, you know.”
“Well, he must have screwed something up bigtime to get transferred from a Class M planet to an asteroid,” Marv said. “‘Banished!’ was the term he used in that whiny message — typical Walter exaggeration. Probably meant he’d been fired.”
Pat, paused, halfway into her spacesuit, and frowned.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “I mean, they were so insistent that we visit. That’s what has me worried. I thought it was very odd — especially since you and Walter have never gotten along.”
“Oh, we got along for about two months — before he tried to get me to invest in that dumb-ass company he and his college buddies started,” Marv said. “Fortunately, I came to my senses and pulled our money out at the last minute. Walter’s an idiot.”
“But then you founded a competing company that put Walter’s out of business,” Pat protested. “That’s why he ended up having to work for Planetary Science.”
“And wound up on an asteroid,” Marv said. “Because Walter’s an idiot.”
He grunted. His old spacesuit seemed to be a good deal tighter than he’d remembered. He made a mental note to buy a new one as soon as they got off this god-forsaken rock and hit Delta Colony.
The ship’s radio chimed and a recorded message said, “Please exit your vehicle and enter the waiting shuttle car. It will transport you to the central biodome. The shuttle car is pressurized for your comfort and safety.”
“Can you believe this place?” he said. “It doesn’t even have a pressurized landing bay. Stupid spacesuits! Talk about primitive.”
“Don’t forget your boot weights,” Pat reminded him. “This is very low gravity.”
They went, one at a time, through the craft’s pressure lock. Pat waited for Marv on the pitted landing pad, and together they stomped awkwardly over to the shuttle car. They climbed in, and it crept slowly on tractor treads to the biodome’s airlock. There they were able to struggle out of their pressure suits and hang them in guest lockers. In the arrival area, a robot was waiting for them — one of the 9-86 Bio-bots, by the look of it.
“Welcome to Chiron Beta Prime Marv and Pat Cruz,” the robot intoned, inclining its rectangular head in greeting. “How can we help you?”
“We’re here to visit Walter and Naomi Anderson,” Pat said.
The robot was silent for far longer than would be required to check a database for the Andersons’ whereabouts.
“It must be calling their quarters,” Pat whispered.
“There are no workers named Walter Anderson or Naomi Anderson on Chiron Beta Prime,” was the robot’s answer.
Marv and Pat exchanged glances.
“Oh, great,” said Marv. “They’ve skipped town.”
“But they sent us a message a few weeks ago at Terra-Christmas, saying they were working here in the mines,” Pat told the robot.
“There are no workers named Walter Anderson or Naomi Anderson on Chiron Beta Prime,” the robot said. “Walter Anderson and Naomi Anderson were on the station roster at Terra-Christmas but they are not here now. We are pleased to give you the official tour of our mining facility. Please come this way.”
“Well, wait a minute. Where are they?” Pat pressed.
“Information on the locations of Walter Anderson and Naomi Anderson is no longer available,” the robot replied.
Pat did not have to look at her husband to know that he was ready to turn around and leave. The robot was ready to go, too — but it was moving down a nearby corridor, indicating that the tour was a requirement rather than an option.
“Marv, I told you, something’s happened to them,” Pat hissed as they followed the robot down a long, dimly lit tunnel. “Remember how Walter’s message mentioned trouble?”
Marv frowned and consulted the data screen on his wrist. No signal. He glanced around the corridor.
“I’d like to find some actual people around here,” he said.
Fortunately, the visit to the mines — a miasma of ammonia and rock viewed through tightly sealed glass — was short. Then the robot guided them through a drab section of the complex that housed human workers.
“Now we’ll get somewhere,” Marvin said. He was nodding confidently in a way that usually drove to Pat distraction, but now seemed reassuring.
When she spotted a group in gray coveralls huddled around a table in what appeared to be a common room, she darted over to them. The workers stopped talking as Pat introduced herself.
“We’re looking for our relatives, Walter and Naomi Anderson,” she said. There was a silence. The workers exchanged glances.
“They –” one man began.
“– must have been here before our time,” one of the women finished, glaring at the man. He looked down at the table and busied himself with a half-eaten bowl of a greenish stew.
“Oh, no –” Pat said. “You see, the Andersons sent us a message just a few weeks ago, at Terra-Christmas! They were here, on Chiron Beta Prime, and they were practically begging us to visit them. Naomi’s my sister!”
“Never heard of them,” the woman said. “Sorry.”
The workers stood up from the table and began walking away.
“Leave now, while you still can,” the last of the men muttered as he walked by. “Forget about the Andersons.”
Marv took Pat by the arm and tugged her away from the table.
“Something’s fishy,” he said. “God knows what kind of trouble Walter got himself into here. I want to leave before the robots start asking us questions. A bunch of them just marched down the hall in formation, and I don’t like the looks of it.”
Their robot escort was waiting for them by the door.
“We really do need to get back to the ship,” Marv told it loudly. “My colleagues on Delta Colony are expecting us. They will be very, very concerned if we don’t show up on time.”
To his surprise and relief, the robot took them to a nearby elevator and escorted them back up to the spaceport waiting room. It made no move to stop them as Marv hustled a distraught Pat into the pressure lock.
“Goodbye Marv Cruz and Pat Cruz,” they heard the robot saying over the speaker system as they hastily suited up. “Please visit again. The shuttle is ready to take you to your ship.”
“This could be tricky,” Walter Anderson whispered to Naomi as they prepared Marv’s Skykraft for takeoff. “It’s been years since I piloted a spaceship. And trust old Marv to have bought one with all the fancy gadgets.”
“Just get us out of here,” Naomi begged.
Outside the ship, the launch pad lights began to flash green.
“We’ve got their clearance sign,” Naomi reported.
Walter, peering at the pilot screen, nodded.
“OK,” he said. “Hang tight. I think we’re finally getting out of this hellhole!”
He held his breath and tapped the pilot screen, fervently hoping that the button he’d picked was the one that would trigger a liftoff sequence. Lights began moving from left to right across the screen. Four, three, two, one…
The Skykraft began to shudder, lifted slowly off the pad, and began moving away from the asteroid with excruciating slowness.
“We’re still within range of the freight tractor-beam,” Naomi hissed. “Can’t you pick up the speed?”
“Trying, trying,” Walter muttered, fumbling frantically with the controls. He swiped the screen and double-tapped a button. There was a clanking of latches from the outside hull above them, and Walter and Naomi were knocked back in their seats by a welcome surge of power. Soon the little craft was zipping off in the direction of Delta Colony, freed from the four external freight pods that held two-dozen custom-forged swords and the rest of Marv Cruz’s Warcraft gear.
Walter and Naomi gave a collective sigh and ventured smiles of relief.
“We’re still tight for fuel,” Walter warned his wife. “These little sport ships were designed to carry two people, not four. And it doesn’t help that those Biobot shells weigh a ton.”
Naomi looked over at the grimy old robot shells they’d used for their escape and shuddered. Her skin smelled of old plastic and metal, and her hair was disheveled from hours spent in a pressure suit crammed inside the Biobot disguise. But it was completely worth it to escape from Chiron Beta Prime.
She leaned over and gave her rumpled and smelly husband a kiss.
“The plan worked, and we’ve seen the last of our robot overlords,” Naomi said. “But, gee, do we really have to keep poor Marv and Pat in semi-stasis in the luggage bay?”
“Afraid so,” Walter said. “But at least we’ll get Marv to his reunion.”
He hunched a little closer to the pilot’s screen so he could study the instructions for making a fly-over cargo drop on Delta Colony. And so his wife wouldn’t see him grinning.
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Escape from Chiron Beta Prime by Karen G. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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