[Another Uranian mystery, to set alongside Violet Bertelsen's The Chthonic Pull and Robert Gibson's Uranian Gleams. Ever-fascinating, the way the worlds of the Old Solar System play their variegated hands of cards, showing their different faces, while the thematically over-arching planetary soul accretes character with each tale.]
1. Last Chance for Earth
- EARTH GEOSYNCHRONOUS ORBIT -
The crew of exploration ship Shining Star stood together on the bridge in their best uniforms. They put on their best PR faces and faced the video camera for the departure speech. The first manned expedition to the planet Uranus was intended to collect Helium-3 gas from the dense atmosphere and return it to Earth. Helium-3 was the key fuel for the advanced fusion generators coming on-line which could solve Earth's energy problems. The only hitch was that it was non-existent on Earth and scarce on the Moon. It was imperative to find new supplies from the gaseous outer planets like Uranus. This expedition was a major gamble as they only had enough Helium 3 fuel for one mission. It had taken 5 years of lunar mining to recover enough Helium 3 for rocket engines powering the Shining Star. If this mission failed, they might not be able to mount another one.
Elisabeth Marie Williams, 35, was the Canadian pilot of the multinational crew. She was the Eurasian Economic Union's most experienced pilot and she would lead the collection effort. She had piloted the freighters which had supplied the lunar base and returned the fuel to Earth. The fusion engines were the brainchild of J.Y. "Jimmy" Ho of the Chinese National Space Agency. Jimmy had insisted on accompanying them on their maiden flight to make sure them made it there and back. The commander of the mission was Ivan Kuznetsov of the Russian Federal Space Agency. Ivan had 30 years of experience in the Eurasian Economic Union space program. Medical/Science Officer Marika Werner from Germany rounded out the small experienced crew.
Elisabeth fidgeted as she listened to the speeches. The Mission Director, Alexi Grigorovich, was currently talking on about the importance of the mission. He was going on about amazing achievements required to get it into space. Elisabeth used to get excited with all the public relations events. After receiving her last dismal medical report, she wasn't in the mood though. The report had confirmed what she already suspected. The cellular damage from 5 years piloting cislunar space had triggered cancer and her body was dying. Her hair was trimmed short after it turned white and brittle in the last year. She missed her long dark hair but then again there was a lot she would miss. It was unlikely that she would survive the 15 month duration of the mission. It was only necessary for her to get the crew to Uranus and work out the flight procedure to collect the first loads of Helium 3. Once that was done, she wasn't necessary and the crew could return without her.
As the cameras closed down, everyone relaxed. Elisabeth changed to her normal flight attire and started final orbital departure procedures. She reviewed the planned trajectories and confirmed the initial transfer orbit. They would reach the moon, then execute a series of swings around the planets to reach Uranus in 7 months. It would be a long trip, she thought as she started on her checklist.
- VICINITY OF URANUS -
The Shining Star was approaching its destination seven months after the departure from Earth. Elisabeth monitored the approach to Uranus from the cockpit of the Shining Star. The cockpit had become Elisabeth's favourite place to relax and her private refuge during the long journey. It was always quiet with only the humming of the fusion drive in the background. The dim red lights of the instrumentation displays were the only break in the darkness allowing her to be alone with her thoughts.
She was listening to Mozart on headphones as she reviewed the procedures for the final rendezvous with Uranus. The mission was drawing close to its goal with Uranus getting larger on the view screens every hour. Elisabeth couldn't look out actual windows as the cockpit and all the crew areas were located at the core of the spacecraft. Here they were surrounded by water and fuel tanks for radiation protection. Large displays at least provided high quality imagery of the outside of the ship. Unfortunately the protection wouldn't do her any good at this point. She wished the lunar freighters had been protected that way.
Her briefing when they picked her for this mission was simple and clear. The Eurasian Economic Union desperately needed the Helium-3 from the mission. Conventional oil, gas and coal supplies were getting more expensive and challenging to obtain every year. The development of working Helium-3 Fusion reactors had been a major achievement. The new reactors could replace nuclear, oil and gas generators and solve a lot of energy problems. Unfortunately the amount of fuel available from lunar mining was limited and expensive. So everything was riding on this mission. Whether she and the majority of her crew survived this trip wasn't relevant as long as the fuel came back.
As she listened to the strains of the music, she reflected on how she had gotten to this point in her life. The long days and nights of the journey gave you lots of time to think about your life choices. Elisabeth had picked this career because she wanted a glamorous life. As a teenager, she had devoured all the science fiction novels and movies. She imagined a glamorous and exciting life as an astronaut. Life doesn't always turn out as planned, though, and her dreams ended at 28 when her family were all killed.
Her family had been on a holiday to San Francisco when US provocations had triggered the launch of a Korean nuke. Her parents and sister had all disappeared in a fiery instant and left her alone. The collapse of the North American governments that followed the attack then put an end to American and associated Canadian space ambitions. She had buried her grief by taking on the long haul missions for the EEC from Earth to the Moon and back with its toll on her health. It didn't matter to her, though, because life without family was too long anyway.
She was startled as Ivan poked his head into the cockpit. "Elisabeth, how close are we to orbital burn?"
She turned to look at him, taking off her headphones. "We are three hours out, then we should be able to establish a geosynchronous orbit, Commander.." She really liked Ivan and had willingly shared her bed with him though that was getting more uncomfortable as her condition worsened. She shook the bad thoughts out of her head as he headed back to the bridge.
In the main display, the opaque atmosphere of Uranus loomed ever closer. Elisabeth turned her attention back to her work, and completed the orbital manoeuvres needed to achieve geosynchronous orbit. After they were in a stable orbit, she headed to the viewing pod by the docking bay. It was the only place on the ship which had actual windows you could look out and it was generally only used during orbital operations.
Elisabeth sat in the pod looking at the milky white planet below them. The next step would be to pilot one of the collector shuttles down into the atmosphere and scoop up as much Helium-3 as she could manage. This was the part that they selected her for, as no one knew what atmospheric flight on Uranus would be like and her experience would be essential. Once she had sorted it out, they would use the flight information to automate the collection, which was just as well, given her condition. She just had to survive this.
She heard Ivan's voice over the intercom, "Elisabeth, meet us in the docking bay - it's time to make history." She sighed and climbed out of the pod, taking one last look at the swirling clouds on the planet below, then headed to pick up her flight suit.
After climbing into the shuttle cockpit, Elisabeth completed her pre-flight check and confirmed systems status with Jimmy. "Please try to bring it back in one piece, Elisabeth."
"Sure, Jimmy, I wouldn't want to scratch anything", she laughed. She saw Marika frowning in the background. As Medical Officer, Marika was fully aware of her condition but knew the importance of these flights. Elisabeth smiled at her. "I am heading down; wish me luck".
Elisabeth was a experienced shuttle pilot so she easily maneuvered the craft clear of the docking bay and slowed it down so that it dropped behind and below the mother craft. Descending to a planet was really a matter of slowing your orbital speed. She had to descend from 8 km/sec at 57000 km down to about 100km, so it actually took several burns to make the transition.
Descending into the thick clouds, the flight took more and more of her attention as she took over manual control. She watched the hull temperature as it started to rise and felt the craft being buffeted by high winds but it was still within margins. She couldn't see much through the dense clouds at this altitude so she was relying on the doppler radar for information. The tanks were filling up as expected as the air-scoops collected the gas, so it was all going to plan.
Once the tank gauges showed the collection complete, she fired up the main thrusters to take her back up to the Shining Star where she could unload and return for more.
"Commander, first run is complete... it all went smoothly so I'll be back shortly."
Elisabeth started to relax a little on the third trip down to the planet. She had been expecting problems from the beginning, but other than the normal sort of glitches it actually was going pretty smoothly. She had adjusted to the constant buffeting from the winds and was able to navigate the round trip without too much difficulty. She had pretty much put her concerns about the return trip to Earth out of her mind as she focused on the mission at hand.
She tiredly rubbed the back of her neck, thinking that it would only take another few trips to complete the collection, when alarms started going off and the SAR display was flashing. She stared at the massive shape indicated by the radar. Whatever it was, it was really close and very BIG! She quickly scanned the area, looking for any escape options, when suddenly the ship broke free of the clouds and she could see an impossible landscape below.
As she looked up, she could finally see what she was about to hit, a massive airship. As she looked down in amazement, she could see giant "flowers" floating over canyons. Elisabeth didn't have time to take in the strange scene as a bright light from the airship blinded her and explosions rocked the ship. The shuttle jerked and spiralled out of control. She barely managed to radio the Shining Star, "Help, I am going down.. you aren't going believe this." Darkness overtook as she slipped into unconsciousness, death apparently coming earlier than even she expected.
- AIREAN DOME, PLANET LÚTH (URANUS)-
Elisabeth felt her consciousness returning from the horribly chaotic dreams she had been having. Her eyesight was blurred so she could only vaguely see shapes through what seemed like white mist. She seemed to be upright but it was hard to tell as she couldn't feel her body. As her eyesight became sharper, she could make out forms outside. Through the mist, it appeared they were tall, humanoid with very pale white skin and large dark eyes. They wore some sort of robes and several of them were behind what looked like control panels.
Her head stared to throb and suddenly she had some feeling in her head but still not in her body. Her eyesight was slowly improving and she could see clearer now so she tried to focus on the beings in front of her. They were somewhat human but taller and more slender. The one in the golden robes stopped talking with the others and came and stood before her, looking at her carefully.
"Can you understand me?" he said softly. She was surprised as she realised she could, so she nodded slowly, trying to make sense of the scene. She saw she was suspended in some sort of transparent tube as it slowing retracted upwards. "You are from the third planet, Eléth which you call Earth," was a statement rather than a question. "You were attacking one of our ships so we were forced to shoot you down and unfortunately you crashed. We found what was left of you and your vessel in the wilds of our planet where you suffered significant damage to your body. We have some knowledge of your planet from monitoring your communications but we don't have the medical knowledge or the biological material to repair you fully".
He paused to look at her again, "We have a class of symbiotic mechanical beings who serve us here on Lúth or Uranus as you call it. We were able to adapt parts to rebuild you but I am afraid you won't have the same level of sensation as you had before. We don't have enough information about your nervous systems so there is a lot we couldn't completely reconnect but you will be able to move around. We have added neural training so you can understand and speak our language. You are .." He continued watching for her reactions.
Suddenly her mind snapped and panic broke through her normal discipline as she tried to scream but nothing came out. How was this possible? She kept thinking it must be a bad dream or a nightmare. Her mind was racing to catch up because everything she was seeing and hearing was impossible! Uranus was a cold gas planet, it didn't have the landscapes she saw... it didn't have civilization and she couldn't be a cyborg or whatever she was supposed to be. She couldn't feel her body at all. It was too much and she lapsed back into darkness of unconsciousness.
When she awoke this time, the room was dark except for softly glowing lights from the instrument panels. She could feel her body now but her arms and legs still felt dead. Even though she couldn't really feel them, she found she could move her arms and legs a bit and was able to turn her head to look around.
She was standing on a small glowing platform which she was connected to by cables at the back of her neck and torso. She held up her hand and instead of her hand she saw a intricate mechanical hand and arm. As she looked down she could see smooth silver mechanical legs instead of her legs and the skin of her nearly naked torso displayed seams and markings which were probably cybernetic in nature. She choked down the panic rising in her this time.
This really had to be a dark dream but it felt all too real. I have to keep calm, she thought to herself. It was the same sense of unreality she felt when she found out her family had been killed. That feeling that this cannot be happening was hitting her now. Then, she had fled to the cold comfort of space work to escape the despair; and now, oh my god, she was a half robot? She would have sobbed but this new body apparently was incapable of expressing emotions.
She finally exhausted herself struggling to move off the platform to no avail. The platform lit up again and she felt herself pulled back into unconsciousness.
As she regained consciousness for the third time, there was someone disconnecting her from the platform connections.
This being was a symbiote, smooth silver surfaces with complex arms that looked like the ones she had. The torso was white metallic with a definite female shape. The head was smooth humanlike with glowing eyes and a symbol on its neck.
"You should feel better shortly but please move slowly as you need to get used to your new body. You have been unconscious for several of your Earth weeks," the symbiote whispered. "I am Alisna, assistant to Leader Myker who spoke to you earlier. You are currently in the Ilúrsa medical complex where we have been repairing your body. You should have full use of your arms and legs but you will need some physical rehabilitation for you to regain your full mobility. We have also added memory modules for additional skills you will need."
"What skills? What happens to me now?" Elisabeth still had a hard time accepting what was going on.
"You are Lizbeth, pilot symbiote of Leader Myker. I will take you to him where he will inform you of your new role and responsibilities."
"Pilot? Where is my ship?, where are my crew? what am I?” she stammered out, her voice hoarse and unfamiliar, trying to deal with her new body
"I am sorry, your ship was completely destroyed in the crash. I understand we tracked another ship recently in the last cycle which disappeared over the Wilds but it was not found or recovered so I have no further information."
So her crew might be somewhere on the planet? She had to get back to the Shining Star somehow. The Lúthians apparently had a high level of technical sophistication so maybe they had spaceships as well.
Alisna guided her out of the room and light blazed in through tall windows. The scene outside was filled with exotic gardens and people but the sky was milky white. She was definitely not on Earth!
"Alisna, where is the Sun, stars? I can't see anything!"
Alisna turned to look at her then carefully spoke, "We live under the Airean Dome which keeps us safe and protected on the surface. We are far from the Sun as you call it and it is only the energy cores which allow us to live on the surface."
Energy cores? Could it be that they had mastered Helium 3 fusion technology long before Earth scientists and engineers?
"After we complete your rehabilitation, I will take you to meet with Myker and he can answer your questions.”
“Alisna, I am confused, what are the symbiotes? Are you androids?”
Alisna paused to consider the question. “If I understand what you mean by android, then no, we are not androids as we are not purely machines. We have consciousness and our organic matrix is maintained by what you would call a semi-sentient fungus. The fungus is an ancient lifeform that evolved in the deep caverns. When we are created, it is what allows our consciousness to enter and stay”.
Lizbeth shook her head, realising there was a lot she and Earth science didn’t understand. “So what am I then?”
“Your body was created like a symbiote so you have the fungus which protects your organic matrix but your brain and nervous system were grafted in so you still have your own memories and consciousness.”
Lizbeth felt her head spinning, “So am I still human?” She was afraid to hear the answer.
Alisna looked back at her intently, “Yes and no. You are partly like you were and now you are also like us. There are no others like you. That’s really all I can tell you”.
Alisna took her hand and it was obvious that Lizbeth was to follow.
Each "day" on Uranus was only about 17 Earth hours so it was several Lúthian weeks before Alisna deemed Elisabeth ready to venture out in public.
As they walked outside the Ilursa complex for the first time, Elisabeth was acutely aware of all the sounds and smells of the crowds milling along the main street. She decided some of this was a function of her new body. While she saw a lot of symbiotes on the street, she didn't see any symbiotes with organic parts like her. The ones she saw were smooth and humanoid with male and female features and some were very mechanical looking but nothing like her. She seemed to be an odd combination of the two.
"Come with me Lizbeth, Leader Myker wants you to demonstrate your piloting skills". Alisna summoned a ground vehicle, like a taxi, and soon they were moving quickly down a broad roadway. As Elisabeth, or "Lizbeth" as the Lúthians referred to her, looked though the windows of the taxi, she could see what appeared to be giant floating flowers about 50 metres in the air. It wasn't what she was expecting! Earth scientists had gotten it all wrong, she thought; everything she was taught about the solar system seemed in question. What else that she had been taught about the Solar System might also be wrong?
They soon pulled up to what seemed to be an airport of some sort. Giant airships were taking off, slowly disappearing into the distance while other craft were approaching and quietly landing. Alisna drove across the field towards a large craft which didn't match the others.
It was smaller than the airships she had seen and she soon realised it was a spacecraft. As they approached the craft, she saw a figure waiting for them. Leader Myker stood patiently for them beside an open hatch.
"Hello Lizbeth, I apologise for rushing you through this but there is a sense of urgency. This is a prototype of a interplanetary spacecraft we have built but we have discovered that it is not well shielded enough to protect our kind. A symbiote can pilot it but the last prototypes crashed as the symbiote pilots were unable to deal with the turbulent atmosphere. No Lúthian would volunteer to give up his or her body to be a symbiote so we are hoping you can succeed.
“We have been observing significantly more military space activity around your planet and we are concerned they will be following your path here with warships. We need to find out more so we can avoid a conflict. As you are currently the only one capable of piloting our interplanetary spacecraft, we need you to pilot it back to Earth and help us prevent a war."
Myker watched her closely to gauge her reaction. She was trying to take in the new information once again. Her mind was not really keeping up with the various emotions which seemed to be with her even in a symbiote body. But piloting was what she did and even with all this, maybe she could make sense of her world if she could pilot again. She also wanted to get back to Earth and find out what Myker was talking about.
Myker showed her to the cockpit which looked like an empty reclining chair with some sort of connectors. "Please lie down and we will start your training," Myker gestured to the empty seat.
As Lizbeth lay down, she felt a tug at the back of her neck. She reached back to discover cables plugged into receptacles which must have been under her "skin". Suddenly the room went dark and a very different scene appeared around her. She could see outside the spacecraft and "feel" the engines and power systems. It was as if the spacecraft were an extension of her body.
"Lizbeth, you should be able to see all of the ship’s visual and technical data systems. There is an onboard artificial intelligence, like a special-purpose symbiote which provides all the information you need. You may call her Sophia, after your Greek god of wisdom and it will support you during operation." She could see him smiling in his own arrogant way.
In her head she suddenly heard a new voice, "Hello Lizbeth, I am Sophia, your ship information system. I am downloading the instructions you will need to operate the ship. Once it is complete, we can make your first suborbital flight."
Lizbeth felt a buzz in her head and then all of a sudden she understood how everything functioned. It was amazing! She could literally fly this ship with her mind and she paused as she realised they had never mentioned the Shining Star. The Lúthians might not be aware that it was still in geosynchronous orbit. She had to get back to it and find out what happened to the crew.
Alisna settled into the seat next to hers, interconnecting into the ship’s system as Lizbeth had. "I don't have the technical capability to fly the ship as you have," Lizbeth could see her virtual self turn towards her as she talked. "This isn't really necessary to see each other's avatars when we are connected but Myker felt it would make more sense to your human brain."
A sudden realisation hit Lizbeth, "What do you mean, ‘human brain’? I thought you replaced everything with symbiote parts."
Alisna shook her head, "No. That’s what makes you unique, you actually retain your human brain and much of your central nervous system and some organic parts that we don't have a replacement for. So you are not a full symbiote, but a... " she obviously was searching for a word, "... hybrid. You are an enhanced human so space travel won't damage you as it did your previous body but you still retain human functions in many ways."
She wasn't quite sure what that meant but it did mean she was still part human. Now if she could find a way back to the Shining Star, she might find some answers and a way home.
"Can we get started please? Take the ship into a 300km circular orbit and we will take it through some maneuvers to verify your training."
Lizbeth focused on the ship’s systems and felt Sophia release control to her. She felt the build-up in the engines and exhilaration as the ship just lifted off the ground and into the sky. For this first time in a long time she was feeling excited about flying!
Myker had Lizbeth flying several missions each day for the next few weeks as the tech symbiotes reviewed each flight and made adjustments and upgrades. On the third week, he called her into the council room.
"Lizbeth, thank you for all your assistance. Your skills as a pilot are obvious. The ship would have been destroyed several times if one of our symbiotes had flown it." He seemed to be genuinely appreciative but there was something he was not telling her. "The last upgrades to the ship will be complete tonight, and we would like you to depart for Earth as soon as possible."
Lizbeth was suspicious, "I will get ready to depart as soon as possible, Leader Myker, but you are not telling me something; why the rush?
"We are monitoring Earth communication as I have told you before. There is apparently a military mission being planned for Uranus in the next few weeks." Myker looked concerned.
"But we used the last of the Helium 3 getting here; how are they planning to travel so far?" Lizbeth was puzzled by the idea.
"Apparently they have revived an old propulsion concept of detonating nuclear bombs behind the ships with the resultant explosive force providing propulsion. It's not safe but it would be effective so they must be desperate. That’s why we have to move quickly to avert a disaster. I suggest you rendezvous with your ship in orbit and bring back some Helium 3; it may be useful."
Lizbeth jerked back slightly; she hadn't realised the Lúthians knew about the Shining Star as they have never mentioned it. "Ahh.. yes that would be a good place to start. I'll leave as soon as I am ready." She nodded at Myker and turned and headed back to medical complex where she was quartered.
As she walked back to her room, she mused that one good thing about her new half-symbiote body was that she didn't need to bring a lot with her. Even her hair seemed to stay clean which mean there was more to her capabilities than she knew about. Her plan was simple: get to the craft and head back to find the Shining Star. It was a long way away and didn't have a big signature anyway, so you had to know where to look. Fortunately, as its pilot she at least knew roughly where she left it.
It was early the next morning when the call came. Alisna came to her room and confirmed that the ship was ready and waiting for her. She gathered her few things and quietly made her way outside the complex and found a taxi vehicle to take her to the airport. Apparently there was a major gathering in the city centre so the roads were almost empty and the atmosphere seemed ominous. She wondered if the gathering was about the new threat from Earth.
The symbiote driver took her to the landing pad and Lizbeth made her way to the craft and boarded without any interference. She carefully checked out the vehicle and confirmed to herself that all the upgrade work was completed. After settling into the pilot seat, she activated the neural interface and the cockpit disappeared as she entered the immersive mode.
"Hello Lizbeth", Sophia was right there, now with a Greek goddess avatar that Lizbeth had put together. "What is the mission today?"
"Sophia, we need to find my old ship so I can find out what happened to my crew. It's in geosynchronous orbit over the equator but I am not sure of the exact coordinates." She was hoping that Sophia had been given access to all of the Lúthian tracking systems.
"I will check the latest records. Leader Myker instructed me to provide you whatever support you need." Sophia started to display all known satellite records on her display.
"Please let Myker know once we have taken off. Hopefully the Shining Star is still operational and if I can get it activated, we can head back to Earth to deliver our fuel and find out if Lúth is in danger."
She smiled as she really hadn't cared much whether she lived or died the past few years. She hadn't had time to deal with her anger and grief over losing her family and now her humanity but at least there might be a future ahead of her now to sort it out.
"Pass me the controls Sophia and we can get out of here"
Lizbeth scanned the sky as her ship rose up to geosynchronous orbit. She could "see" through her long range sensors but it was still a bit of a needle in a haystack. Space was "big" and even a large spacecraft like the Shining Star was difficult to find even if you had an idea where to look.
Several hours went by before she could "feel" a presence, which her sensors soon identified as the Shining Star. As she maneuvered close to the big ship, she could see all the Helium 3 tanks were full. So the crew had managed to complete the collection after all. The empty bays indicated that they had taken the other ship afterwards to look for her.
She could see there was room for her craft in the empty collection ship bay. She carefully maneuvered the Lúthian ship into position near the docking port and engaged the landing gear to secure it to the giant vessel.
The combination of symbiotic tech and skintight pressure suit meant she only needed a transparent helmet to cross over to the Shining Star. It was running on standby power so there were no obstacles getting through the airlock. As she came on-board, the lights in the ship came alive as it recognized her entry.
"Please identify yourself", came the voice on the on-board AI. "This is Lt-Commander Elisabeth Williams," she replied as she had so many times before. The AI was silent as it scanned her. Obviously retinal scans or fingerprints were out of the question so she volunteered, "I have had extreme medical repairs but you can check my DNA which should confirm my identity." The AI responded, "Please report to the medical centre."
Lizbeth made her way to the medical bay, reassured by the familiarity but still a little disturbed. Things had changed so much for her. She entered the room where she had always gotten more bad news about her health and lay down on the examination table.
"Please lie still during the examination," the AI continued. Scanning arms moved slowly over her as she felt a tug in her abdomen where it had taken a sample.
After it completed what she decided was the most comprehensive medical exam she had experienced, the AI gave its results.
"You are confirmed as Elisabeth Williams, pilot of the Shining Star; welcome back Elisabeth. Your analysis indicates the you are about 45% human with about 65% alien technology. Your brain and torso remain largely human in function but your limbs, skull, eyes, ears and some of your internal organs have been augmented or repaired with a combination of cyber technology and bio-organic technology. You are not fully functioning, apparently because of mismatches between the alien technology and your human anatomy and nervous system.
Suddenly she heard Sophie's familiar voice in her head, "Lizbeth, this AI knows far more about your physiology than we do. If I merge with it, we can combine our knowledge and finish the repairs on your body".
She thought about that for a few minutes, "Would that allow you to upgrade the technology on the Shining Star as well and vice versa?"
Sophie replied, "I would think so as your AI has sufficient knowledge and understanding".
Lizbeth pondered the implications for a moment. She had terrifying memories of the old sci-fi movie, "The Forbin Project", where two AI's joined to enslave mankind. Given the way mankind was going, maybe that wasn't the worst outcome. In for a dime, in for a dollar as the old saying went, she thought.
"Sophie, I think that would be a good idea... what do you need me to do?"
For the next couple of hours, Lizbeth collected optical cable and adjusted the wireless receiver to allow direct communications between the two systems. Then she waited as they "introduced themselves", which in reality meant exchanging information protocols until they were able to communicate freely.
"Lizbeth, we are ready to attempt the merge so we will be out of communication for about an hour. Please monitor the ship systems while we are inactive." Lizbeth sighed, "Yes Sophie, I can manage for a couple of hours."
Lizbeth had learned a few new things and was now able to directly connect into the Shining Star computer network so she set off to explore and see what had happened in her absence. After about an hour of scanning logs, she sat back and disconnected. Apparently the crew had used the second collector to complete the Helium 3 retrieval but then a disagreement had broken out over the next step. Ivan and Marika wanted to descend one more time to see if they could locate Elisabeth while Jimmy insisted that completing the mission was most important and the risk was too high.
She really couldn't argue with Jimmy, she would have made the same case but then again she hadn't really been invested in life, just finishing this last mission.
The log indicated that in the end, they all decided to go down and sweep the last known location of Elisabeth's collector ship. Log transmissions indicated that they too ran into difficulties but it didn't seem like they crashed the way she did. The transmission ended but it wasn't clear the state of the ship or the crew. So it was possible they could still be alive on the surface somewhere! Neither Myker or Alisna had mentioned any other crashes so there was no way of knowing what happened. Mission Control back on Earth must have been aware of the disappearance of the crew which might explain the activity Myker had revealed.
"Hello Lizbeth, we have successfully completed the merger and are currently assessing your repairs as well as ship upgrades." Lizbeth blinked reflexively. It had worked?
"What do I call you now?" was all she could think of.
"You may still call me Sophie, your AI would be considered female so she was happy to keep that. If you will get back on the table we can proceed with the necessary upgrades to fully repair your body."
Lizbeth removed the tunic she was wearing and climbed back onto the examination table. She plugged in a neural connector.
"I'm sorry Lizbeth, we have to disconnect your nervous system to make the repairs, you will wake up when it's complete," was the last thing she heard as she lost consciousness yet again.
This time when she awoke, Lizbeth felt clear headed. It was amazing as she could "feel" her arms and legs and her body like it was really hers this time. She looked at the clock on the wall and suddenly she was zoomed in to its details. Apparently there was more functionality in her cybernetic eyes than they had told her about.
"Hello Lizbeth, I see you are awake now. We have run scans and your body should be working much better for you as your AI had all the missing information we needed."
Lizbeth rolled off the table, "How long have I been out?"
"You have been unconscious now for 4 earth days, so we have had time to integrate the ship systems as well."
"Can we make it back to Earth now?" she asked, afraid to hear the answer.
"Yes, Lizbeth, by integrating Lúthian technology, we were able to bring the Helium 3 drives to 98% efficiency so the journey should only take about 2 weeks."
Two weeks? It took them 70 days to make the outward journey. She hadn't really thought this far ahead, to be honest. She was supposed to die early on during the return voyage and then she was so caught up in her transformation and getting back to the Shining Star. She shook her head and thought if she let herself sink into what was going on, it would be hard to get anything done.
"Sophie, can you plot a course to Lunar orbit and get us there? I think I need to get some rest and sort this all out in my hea."
"Yes Lizbeth, your quarters are prepared. While you need normal rest, you also need recharging so we have added neural electrical receptors to your bed to allow both. This will allow your brain's neural pathways to adjust to the new connections."
Lizbeth started towards the door and saw herself in a mirror for the first time. The woman looking back at her had what appeared to be smooth thigh high metal boots, capable looking metallic arms and the eyes that looked back glowed blue. A combination of sadness, grief and hope rose up in her. She looked strange, but strong and healthy and she felt better than she has in ages. She walked down the familiar corridor to her stateroom and felt a bit out of place in the room. She didn't feel the depression she used to feel here. This was something different, as if hope for her life was appearing again.
As she rested, she dreamed for the first time in many months. It was an odd mix of images from Lúth and Earth and feeling she was running from someone or something.
She didn't really want to wake up as the reality was too strange. Suddenly the lights in the cabin came on and she could her Sophie in her ear, "Lizbeth, we are approaching Earth-Lunar space and I believe we need you on the bridge". Coming from Sophie, that sounded ominous. She dressed in bits of uniform which she could wear with her cybernetic parts and headed straight to the bridge. Once she arrived, she sat down quickly in the captain’s chair and activated the neural connector.
As space spread before her in her immersive state, she noted several large unusual ships in both lunar and earth high orbits. She could see sensor indications of multiple missile launchers on the ships and extremely large engine nozzles which meant that these really were the warships Myker was referring to. "This doesn't look good. Those ships look ready to fly and they are armed to the teeth", she commented. Sophie responded "I am getting a signal on your communications channel; they would like to talk to you, Lizbeth. Do you want me to set up a video link?"
Lizbeth sighed, "Yes, we might as well get this over with."
She sat down in front of the video link. As the screen cleared, she saw Alexi Grigorovich, Project Lead for the Uranus Mission, staring back at her. He looked uncomfortable looking at her. She supposed the glowing cybernetic eyes were not what he was expecting. "Who are you? Where are my crew?", he barked at her.
"Hello Alexi, this is Elisabeth Williams; the other crew members are missing on Uranus but we managed to return with Helium 3". She could see Alexi talking to people out of the field of view, then he turned back to look at her. "Elisabeth Williams died when her collector ship crashed in Uranus according to our logs, so you can't be her. We don't know who or what you are but you will open the ship for docking and surrender to our people." A shiver went up her spine as she realised that they were using the hostile alien protocol. It had been discussed in briefings but no one took it seriously. If she followed their instructions, it was unlikely she would ever see the light of day.
"Alexi, it's a long story but trust me, I am Elisabeth. The ship confirmed my identity via my DNA otherwise I wouldn't be able to access its systems. You have to understand, we have it all wrong. Uranus is inhabited by intelligent beings. They call their planet Lúth and they have some advanced technology we don't have. I was almost dead but their medical people were able to put me back together with some cybernetic modifications, but its still me."
Alexi turned again to talk to people off camera then stepped aside as a woman Lizbeth recognised as Zhang Nianzhen, Speaker for the EEC council. "Commander Williams, if what you say is true, then this whole mission may be a mistake. We assumed you had been attacked by hostile beings and we need the Helium 3. The situation here is getting more desperate by the day. Is it possible for us to negotiate some sort of agreement with these... umm... Lúthians? We could offer them resources, technology or other materials they may not have access to."
Lizbeth thought for a moment and turned the audio off. "Sophie, has Leader Myker been listening to all of this? I assume he has the support of the council to make decisions?"
"Yes, Lizbeth, as you surmised, Myker has been in constant contact with the council," replied Sophie quietly.
"Leader Myker, I believe Ms Zhang Nianzhen is interested in negotiating a trade agreement to obtain Helium 3 for Earth in exchange for resources Lúth may need. Is this something your people would consider?"
"Hello Lizbeth, yes we would be willing to develop some sort of trade arrangement with Earth. There are materials available on inner planets like Earth that are difficult and expensive for us to obtain. It would also seem preferable to conflict. I will have my people set up communication channels".
Lizbeth turned to the camera and turned the audio on again. "Speaker Zhang, I am informed that Leader Myker of Lúth is agreeable to such a arrangement and will set up communication channels. Will you have Alexi call off his warships please?"
Zhang Nianzhen turned to Alexi who seemed to protest a bit but nodded in agreement and returned to the camera. "Elisabeth, it seems you have averted a crisis here for the moment. We can't allow you into Earth orbit until we have some agreement in place. If your Leader Myker were willing to leave us two fuel pods as a gesture of good will so we can fuel our reactors it would go a long way to defusing the tensions here on Earth."
She heard Myker's voice in her head agreeing. "Yes Alexi, I will deposit two tanks in Lunar orbit where you can retrieve them. I hope we get a chance to speak again".
Alexi looked at her one more time. "Elisabeth, if that really is still you, I hope you find some peace," he started and then continued in another vein, "Please let us know about the rest of the crew."
She smiled and replied, "I will Alexi, I am worried about them as well." She closed the link, left the bridge and headed back to the cockpit.
Lizbeth settled into the pilot’s chair and reconnected to the ship systems. She still wasn't used to the immersive environment, it always felt like she was floating in space. The excitement of piloting like this still hadn't worn off and she suspected it never would. She just sat there for a few minutes, taking in the immensity of the surroundings, Earth and the Moon and the background of stars and planets. Everything she knew about the Solar System had to be tossed in the rubbish bin. If they were so wrong about Uranus, what did that say about the rest of the planets? She would have to find out. In the meantime, she needed to find Ivan and Jimmy and Marika, if they were alive.
"Sophie, can you get us back to Lúth?" After a minute she heard Sophie's now familiar voice in her head. "Yes Lizbeth, based on your previous mission trajectory, I can navigate us back".
"Thank you Sophie, I think I want to just watch and enjoy the view this time." She had no idea what the future was bringing but at least there was a future and there were amazing things to learn and discover. She turned on Mozart and flew through space, alive again.