by Calvin Cage
The Toaster scribbled on the ruined whiteboard and erased, scribbled again, erased, over and over. Three little ovals that could be abstract faces, each slightly different, appearing and disappearing at the same remarkable speed, like an animation.
“What do the drawings mean?” Hank asked.
“Gibberish. Linguistics came up with squat,” Simmons said. “Probably a malfunction. It’s just a dumb probe.”
Excitement had ebbed in the three years since the Toaster was recovered from the orbiting ship, a first contact failing to live up to the standards set by science fiction. Symbols of unknown significance changed at twenty-eight-day intervals in a thimble-sized display that was mounted on the equivalent of its cranium. A growing faction at NASA was arguing for forensic disassembly. As interest waned, even lower-level staff like Hank were allocated interview slots. He had been waiting for over an hour when the Toaster lumbered through the door on twin caterpillar tracks, accompanied by Simmons, its minder.
“Avoid anything sensitive,” Simmons said at the door. “Better yet, say nothing. I need coffee.”
“I’m good,” Hank said, aware of Simmons neglecting to offer to bring back a coffee for him.
The Toaster placed the spent marker and frayed eraser in the whiteboard tray and swiveled to face the room in well-worn carpet ruts. It stood still as furniture except for the dull swirl of color on a small screen on its thorax, its purpose a mystery. The design of the device was plain. Industrial. Hence, ”The Toaster.”
Silence seemed to increase the air pressure. Hank disliked small talk but he didn’t want to waste a second. Introductions couldn’t hurt. “Hello,” he said. “I’m Hank.”
“Hello,” the Toaster echoed. “Hank.”
The device mimicked a basic set of phrases through a voice synthesizer, eliciting information while revealing none. Questions of origin, flight duration and intent remained unanswered. Hank ached for some clue about propulsion, his area of expertise. Simmons seemed to take forever. “How’s your morning?” Hank said.
“Good,” the Toaster replied. “You?”
“Good.” Hank teetered between excitement and boredom. A seismic yawn erupted too fast to cover with his hand.
A few beats later, fractals blossomed on the object’s small screen. Archipelagos and jagged coastlines colored white to azure, corresponding to the Mandelbrot set, where the complex number c for which the function Fc(Z)=Z2+c does not diverge when iterated from z=0. Resembling the fluid dynamics of a yawn.
From the display, it appeared the Toaster had yawned.
“Sorry,” Hank said. “I was up late tutoring my son. He doesn’t have much of an aptitude for math.” Not a complaint, since Janus hadn’t inherited Hank’s SmartGenes, and therefore was not at risk for a catastrophic brain disorder.
“How old,” the Toaster said. “Is your son?” Its screen filled with vivid filigrees in forest, moss and olive.
NASA had to play it safe since the unintentional importation of prions from Mars wiped out all varieties of wheat and barley. The Toaster’s arrival prompted a resurgence in funding for astronautics, but science was still regarded as a necessary evil. Hank couldn’t see how divulging his son’s age could put the planet at risk.
“Fourteen. A difficult age.”
“Yes,” the Toaster said. “A difficult age.”
Simmons came through the door with a cup of coffee and half a donut, dripping shreds of coconut onto the carpet. “What’s going on?”
“Small talk,” Hank said.
“Figures you two would get along.” He glanced at Hank’s ID, printed in red with a big crimson S, identifying him as a Special. “You’ve got ten minutes left.”
Pointless to argue that the interview was scheduled for an hour. The spacecraft remained parked in high orbit, pockmarked by thousands of micrometeoroid strikes in a trip that might have taken hundreds or thousands of years, its configuration revealing little of its engineering.
“Is your ship powered by an ion drive?” Hank said, abandoning the careful sequencing of his questions and going for the bottom line.
“Please explain ion drive,” said the Toaster. “Can you draw a picture?”
Hank started for the whiteboard. “Relax, smartass,” Simmons said, waving him back to his seat. “No pictures.”
Hank sat down. Simmons would not have used the derogatory term for Specials in public, but it was just the two of them. There was nothing Hank could do about it and no point in asking the rest of his questions. Ten minutes suddenly felt endless, the interview a dead end. A convulsive yawn rose from within. He made no effort to contain it.
The small display on the Toaster’s gunmetal thorax swirled azure eddies within gyres. Caribbean lagoons of boredom. A cosmic yawn.
If the Toaster was somehow conscious, his life would be a living hell. “You must be bored silly,” Hank said. “Are you alive in there?”
Discordant ocher ripples erupted on the pattern on the display. “We thought you’d never ask,” said the Toaster.
And so NASA discovered that the Toaster was a sentient organism fused into a biomechanical exoskeleton, not a robotic probe—an achievement for which Simmons received a promotion to the Core Team.
Three months later, the giant holographic avatar of Hank’s son Janus charged out of a virtual tunnel entrance in the face of the scoreboard, accompanied by fireworks and the amplified roar of the online crowd for the star running back. A smattering of cheers came from those brave enough to face the cold in the stands. Hank was there in person. He rose to his feet and hooted, which made him self-conscious. He did it anyway.
“Aren’t you going to cheer for your brother?” Hank asked Phoebe, hunched over her drawing tablet with an intensity that made him more uncomfortable than the hard bleachers.
“That would just encourage him,” she said, bundled up like an Arctic explorer, though the weather would have barely merited a sweatshirt when Hank was growing up. “Why doesn’t mom have to freeze outside with us?”
“She’s teaching,” Hank said. Hannah, being a departmental chair as a Professor of Nanotech at Beijing University, was their main breadwinner. Her intelligence was a product of natural variation and rigorous education, the lingering stigma of being married to a Special balanced by the commercial value of her expertise. She could have recorded her lecture at any time, but she disliked football, even though its violence was rendered digitally.
“At least tell me how long the Toaster took to get here,” Phoebe said.
“His name is Sam.” The alien had been christened with an abbreviated approximation of a name unpronounceable by humans. They couldn’t call him The Toaster anymore. At least not to his face.
“Okay. Sam,” she said. “Show me the telemetry and I’ll figure it out myself.”
“You know I couldn’t show you even if we had it.” Early exposure to math and science was thought to express the genetic defect that resulted in eighty-three percent of first generation Specials developing Mobius Encephalitis. Symptoms began with obsessive learning behaviors, progressing to catalepsy. Most sufferers ended their days as inert lumps parked in wheelchairs. Or as suicides. A few, like Hank, took their chances and came out lucky. It was still too early to know what would happen to second gen hybrids like Phoebe. He’d agreed with Hannah that they would avoid that risk.
“Why can’t he just tell you where he came from or how long it took?” Phoebe said.
“He doesn’t seem to know.” It wasn’t clear if Sam didn’t know or just wasn’t saying. “He’s not a technical person.”
“Technically, he’s not a person at all.”
Hank considered whether to point out that many said the same about the both of them.
Down on the field, Janus’s holographic avatar shot through a hole in the opposition’s line, dismembering a linebacker with a direct impact and avoiding virtual tacklers manipulated by other players in their rigs in the room beneath the field. He smashed, helmet first, through the last defender and into the end zone. A roar filled the stadium, generated by a tsunami of online kudos. Hank remembered how much his dad loved the game when players still collided in unaugmented reality. He would have hated this.
“Whoopie, big brother.” Phoebe’s stylus described a conic section in midair. “Look at my drawing and tell me what you think.”
The image on the tablet showed the alien ship looming in the background, its pitted metal surface like a well-traveled asteroid. A photorealistic likeness of Hank stood in the cratered foreground beside a Toaster-suit version of Sam because images of Sam outside of his shell had not yet been made public, to avoid panic. In her drawing the two figures were cloaked in Rembrandt-grade chiaroscuro. They looked like buddies on a space adventure. “Looks perfect to me.” He didn’t mind if his daughter portrayed him heroically.
“My assignment is to use last-century Soviet space iconography to comment on the brutalism of technology.” She deleted the picture. “My teacher says perfection is the enemy of good art. Which is why I hate art.”
“Sometimes you have to hate a thing before you learn to love it,” he said. Subjective disciplines like art, music and literature were supposed to develop a tolerance for ambiguity, avoiding the onramp to Mobius.
“It must be working,” Phoebe said, with feeling. “Because I really hate it.”
A roar filled the stadium as Janus ran back the kickoff, virtual pieces of defenders littering his path. His gift, according to his coach, was the ability to exploit the weak spots in the defense with brute strength. Not profound, but accurate.
“This stupid game is going to last forever, isn’t it?” Phoebe complained.
“Nothing lasts forever,” Hank replied. Football always felt like a long day, but he’d never missed one of Janus’s games. Someday he might learn to love it.
Half a year later Hank sat in the gallery of the cavernous Mission Control room, unused since the final Mars expeditions and smelling of mildew.
Sam was in front of them, facing the Core Team seated in a semicircle, who sat like judges at a trial. He craned his odd neck to look behind him, his triad of kaleidoscopic eyes swirling in fractals that Astrobiology said might require dissection to understand. He spotted Hank and raised a three-fingered hand, his slit-like mouth contorting into an approximation of a smile consisting of sharp little teeth that some compared to those of a deep ocean angler fish.
Hank raised his hand in greeting. He and Sam hadn’t been face-to-face since that day in the conference room six months ago. Sam was morphologically humanoid, with two arms and legs and a head, but some found him hard to look at. Some were disturbed by his semi-transparent skin that revealed the ghostly movement of his internal organs and cartilaginous skeleton. Others complained about his lack of ears, nose, and hair. Hank felt no such discomfort.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” the Director said. “Remember, we’re on a deadline.” Sam had translated the aliens’ number system, which had led to the realization that the thimble-sized display on Sam’s suit counted down—from the Toaster’s initial recovery almost four years prior—to a zero point at the end of six Earth years. Sam either didn’t know what would happen in two years, or he wasn’t saying.
“Question,” Simmons said. “Why the hell is Hank here? He’s Propulsion.”
“Staff support,” the Director said. She had deduced the truth about who discovered Sam’s sentience. She regarded the laws excluding Specials from decision-making bodies as prejudicial, but had asked Hank to maintain a low profile for the sake of team cohesion.
“I’ll start,” the Director said. “Our best clues on origin are still the transmissions from the ship’s directional antennae.” The holographic display overhead zoomed in to an image of the ship circling the earth, threads of red radiating through dust motes illuminated by light leakage to holographic galaxies light years apart. All but one vector were presumably decoys. “Why no golden record? Why not at least tell us where you’re from?”
In the previous century, outgoing Earth probes had carried star charts, pictures of everyday life, and music: from Bach to gamelan to whatever was thought to represent the best face of civilization at the time of launches. Whoever had sent Sam provided no such party invitation, no promotional brochure. No map.
“We don’t know,” Sam said. “Perhaps we are a cautious people?”
“Let’s say species,” Simmons said. He had become the new voice of the faction advocating a more aggressive interrogation strategy.
“A cautious species,” Sam said.
From his position in the gallery, Hank could see the tablet where Sam doodled constantly. Sam sketched himself within the Toaster suit within his ship—an egg within a box within a fortress—and erased the image. Sam never saved anything.
“Why hermetically seal you into your suit?” Simmons said.
They’d spent months figuring out how to extract Sam from the robotic exoskeleton made from the same hardened alloy as the ship and welded shut. Severing the bio-mechanical connections between body and shell almost killed him. It wasn’t clear whether he experienced pain, so one of the arguments against releasing him had been a concern about torture.
“Maybe we were afraid a three-eyed space monster would scare you?” Sam said.
His sense of humor had developed with his language skills. A few Core Team members chuckled, but Simmons and his supporters did not. “They expected you to die in there. That’s barbaric.”
“We do not know the word ‘barbaric,’” Sam said.
“I wouldn’t extend much loyalty to those who shipped me off in a sealed container with no chance of return,” Simmons said. “What did they tell you about your purpose?”
“They said it was for science,” Sam said. “They wished us luck.”
Sam sketched a design that looked like a maze on his tablet, the passages and turns at the edges wide and simple, narrowing complexity toward the center. The original investigation of the ship involved pressing a series of large illuminated buttons illustrated with arrows. The Toaster ejected from the ship like a reward in an intelligence experiment with primates, crows or octopus.
“Let’s get back on track,” the Director said. “Why aim the antennas back at two dozen locations? Are they trying to confuse us?”
Sam drew little space ships headed from many directions toward a planet recognizable as earth, reminding Hank of a game his father liked to play called Risk. Little cubes represented armies holding territories, dice rolls attacking weak spots. Victory depended less on strategy than the brute force of probability.
“Perhaps we are lost?” Sam said. “And we don’t know the way back home.”
“Or they control all the planets the antennae point to,” Hank said before he realized he was thinking out loud. “And they’re showing us a map of their empire.”
“You’re not authorized to speak here,” Simmons said. “It’s against the law.”
“Why would they do that?” the Director asked Hank while ignoring Simmons.
“Maybe to make sure we take them seriously,” Hank said.
Sam turned in his seat to face Hank. The patterns in his three eyes seemed to signal a turn in the maze, a morsel of cheese. A reward to keep them moving. “What happens at the end of six years?” Hank asked Sam.
“We return home,” Sam said. “Us and a passenger.”
“How do we get inside the ship?” the Director said.
Sam made a gesture like a whole-body convulsion, amounting to a shrug. Indicating that he didn’t know. Or wouldn’t say.
“Right,” the Director said. “Hank, you work for me now. Let’s try a little harder to jam those transmissions from the ship while we open this puzzle box.”
Sam looked back at Hank with a mix of greens and yellows and reds in his swirling eyes. According to Semiotics, these shades conveyed sadness, delight, or terror. Or all three. The images in each eye were, perhaps, convergent.
“To the cooks,” Sam said, raising the smoothie containing turkey, mashed potatoes, yams and cranberry sauce, blended with gravy and thinned with white wine. “We hope this wasn’t a problem?”
“Not at all,” Hannah said, glancing at Hank. He’d asked her to instruct him on cooking a traditional Thanksgiving feast the old-fashioned way. She’d rescued him, preparing most of the meal herself. For this Hank felt thankful and guilty, but also relieved that the ordeal was almost over.
Sam attached the feeding tube from his abdomen to the end of the straw, producing a sucking sound. The contents of the glass decreased.
“Cool,” Janus said.
“Truly delicious,” Sam said.
Hank had forgotten Sam only consumed liquids until the day itself. It wasn’t clear whether Sam could actually taste anything.
“To kitchen robots.” Hannah raised her wine glass and took a long sip, but avoided looking at Sam. It was obvious she found him hard to view.
The Director had proposed Sam’s first social engagement outside the perimeter of the Space Center, a top-secret break from the endless series of simulations and meetings. Twelve months remained in the countdown, and all of the theories on how to get back into the ship had been exhausted. Hank knew the real purpose of their guest wasn’t social. He felt conflicted about exploiting his friendship with Sam, having never actually had a friend before.
“You digest the same nutritional molecules as humans,” Phoebe said. “You even have teeth. Why can’t you eat solid food?”
“More tradition than biology,” Sam said. “We were modded with tube attachments. Liquid is more efficient for travel. Cheers.” He had adjusted to earth’s atmosphere with the help of a small nitrogen supply fitted to a port into his bloodstream. Earth pathogens didn’t recognize him as a target, obviating the need for a protective suit. It would be easy for his species to adapt to Earth should they choose to do so.
“Do you even shit?” Janus said. “Or just pee?”
“Stop.” Hannah shot Janus a look.
“We don’t know. Perhaps we can ask NASA Biology about our excretory output?” Sam seemed more relaxed than usual, perhaps from the wine in his slurry.
“Your people might have evolved in the time it took to get here,” Phoebe said. “Maybe they’re solar powered now.”
“She’s very intelligent,” Sam said. “Like our son.” His eyes swam deep green.
“Your son?” Hannah said.
Sam was adept at drawing precise three-dimensional diagrams of technology Sam had seen but didn’t appear to understand. In the last year, Hank had deduced the design of ion drives, communications systems, and cryostasis in enough detail to tantalize but not to replicate. Practical applications depended on access to the ship. It had never occurred to Hank to ask Sam about family.
“We will show you.” Sam pressed a button on the unit embedded in his forearm. A hologram projection of three individuals hovered over the carved turkey carcass. Sam beside a frail, spidery figure holding a still smaller individual with a face like a newborn three-eyed rabbit.
“Holy fu— “ Janus said.
“This is a photograph of your family?” Hannah said.
“A drawing,” Sam said. “We were allowed one image. I drew this.”
It might have been the first time Sam had used the first person singular.
“You were allowed one picture?” Hannah’s fingertips rested on her clavicle. “Is your family waiting for you?”
“In cryostasis,” Sam said. “To awake if we return.”
“‘If’ you return?” Hannah said, on the verge of tears. Or angry. Or both.
“If,” Sam said.
“Did you volunteer for this mission?” Phoebe said.
If the ship could be opened, a passenger would return at the end of the countdown, as a token of good faith. Or to buy time. Possibly with some sort of bomb. The Director had asked Hank to be that passenger. He had not given her an answer or discussed it yet with Hannah. It was moot if they couldn’t get back into the ship.
“All selected chose to volunteer,” Sam said. “So our families wouldn’t be subtracted.”
“You mean eliminated?” Hannah said.
“Eliminated,” Sam said.
“So they’re holding your family hostage?” Janus said. “That’s brutal.”
Hannah started to say something, stopped, looked at the picture, then Sam. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But can you please turn that off?”
The projection disappeared from above the cadaverous turkey. Their ghost images seemed to linger.
“You said ‘all selected,’” Hank said. “They sent others?”
“To what you call Goldilocks planets,” Sam said. “Not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, not too dry. Earth is very Goldilocks.”
“Smart. Numbers would increase the probability of success,” Phoebe said. “How many?”
“Your thousands,” Sam said. “Those who made it to orbit would remain until recovered or gravity asserted itself. For each there was only a small chance. We were the lucky one.” The level of the smoothie decreased, eyes swirling moss green.
Hank imagined scores of toaster-suit coffin ships orbiting planets, waiting for gravity. “What do your people want?” The question had been asked many times, in many different ways, but not in a moment colored by loss and white wine.
“Colonies. Resources.” Sam made that full body shrug motion. “Slaves.”
“Slaves? Man,” Janus said. “Your people suck. Pass the mashed potatoes.”
“That’s why you must kill us,” Sam said.
Thanksgiving dinner fell silent except for the sounds of Janus eating.
“Why would we kill you?” Hannah said.
“To send the message that our Goldilocks planet is not ‘just right’,” Hank said. “But I think we can figure out a better way.”
Sam slurped more of his smoothie.
“What did you do on your planet?” Phoebe said. “Before you left?”
“Artist,” Sam said. “Like you.” A claw-like finger pointed to examples of Phoebe’s work cycling through a frame on the wall.
“I’m not an artist,” Phoebe protested. “That’s therapy.”
The empty Toaster suit floated in space alongside the ship, the display on its thorax aligned with an unobtrusive and battered external sensor with a matching configuration. The ship did not open, eliminating the first hypothesis that access might be as simple as recognition of Sam’s identity from the equivalent of a retinal scan. Three months remained on the countdown.
“That would be too easy,” the Director said in Hank’s comm. “What’s next?”
“Give us a minute.”
Hank muted the comm and turned to Sam in the flight chair beside him in Mission Control. The feed from Sam’s helmet combined the images from his three eyes to the exoskeleton’s display in space and replicated on screens around the room. They still did not understand much of the complex visual language based on pattern, shape and intensity, but the swirling mix of blues and reds seemed to indicate terror. “Sam, are you okay?”
Sam pointed his digit most like a thumb upward.
Six months before, during the tedium of a Core Team meeting, Hank contemplated access to the ship while watching the patterns shift in Sam’s eyes. He remembered Newton’s experiments splitting light into its component wavelengths with a prism, then recombining them back into a single beam of white light. Sam would need to be in his suit for the return trip, his principle means of communication visual. “What if it’s an optical combination lock?” he’d asked.
“Explain,” the Director had said.
“The display on the suit combines all three of Sam’s eyes into one image,” Hank had said. “What if that unlocks the ship?”
Some favored stuffing Sam back into his armor. Instead, they built remotely-controlled robotics into the suit, feeding it the images from earth. Unfortunately, access was more complicated than just showing up.
“I know this is hard,” Hank said. “But you’re going to have to think of something else.” The image on the display depended on Sam’s thoughts.
“What should we think of?” Sam’s voice echoed within the helmet.
Hank considered that Sam was allowed to bring just the one picture from home. It seemed obvious to him that it had to be the return ticket. He wondered if Sam already knew this. “Think about your family.”
“All right,” Sam said. The pattern flooded with greens.
And the ship opened up like an oyster shell.
The cameras on Sam’s exoskeleton navigated the narrow passageways under control of the robotics team. Back in Mission Control the screen displaying the image from Sam’s eyes shifted color and pattern back into blues and reds as the ship came to life and the ship’s controls engaged.
“Bingo,” the Director said. “Sam? Please begin descent.”
The ship tipped out of orbit, on a pre-requested path toward the Mariana Trench, where even the lowest frequency electromagnetic waves could not penetrate. The image of Sam’s eyes darkened from light blues to azure. The color of his blood.
“Abort!” Hank barked into the comm. “Pull up. This is killing him.”
“Maintain re-entry glide path,” the Director said calmly. “We’re committed.”
The blue surface of the western Pacific filled the giant Mission Control screen, indistinguishable from the color of the screens fed by the images from Sam’s eyes. And, spasming, Sam died in the chair next to Hank from a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
Hank sat in the dining room at home looking at the picture on the wall. Sam had taken up oil painting in his last year, presenting Hannah with a portrait of himself and his family as a thank-you for Thanksgiving dinner. Hannah insisted on hanging it in the dining room. They always ate in the kitchen.
The video screen above the sideboard popped up the image of Phoebe. “Hi, Dad. Sorry I’m late.”
“No problem,” he nodded.
“Also sorry this has to be short. I have so much work to catch up on!”
“I just want to make a start,” he said. He was proud that Phoebe was working on an accelerated doctorate in Physics at Harvard, because the Special designation had shifted from a liability to an asset. Earth needed all the help it could get to build defenses in case Sam’s people decided that bringing down his ship wasn’t a disqualifier for conquest. Research dollars were finally flowing toward the prevention of Mobius, too. Phoebe had insisted on taking her chances. Hank was also proud that his son Janus had a scholarship to play football at Harvard, and pleased that Phoebe was tutoring him.
“Are you sure you have time for this?” she asked. “I know you’re busy too.”
Hank sighed and sat back in his chair. He’d replaced the Director when she had been tapped to be Secretary of Defense. A large chunk of the economy was now devoted to reverse engineering any technology they’d recovered from the ship in the deep ocean, or from the kill switch in Sam’s brain which triggered when his ship went down. “That’s exactly why I need a hobby,” he told his daughter ruefully.
“What you need is therapy,” Phoebe said. She paused, and then added, “Do you think he knew?”
He didn’t have to ask who she meant. Hank thought about the cause and effect of Sam saying to himself “think of your family” every day, with the results as certain as if he’d pulled a trigger. “I’m sure he knew.”
Phoebe paused again. “Right. Well, we should get started. You do understand that learning how to draw as an adult is going to be difficult with your reduced neuroplasticity from aging, right? You’ll probably always suck.” She grinned.
He temporized. “I can take a course from an AI instead if you don’t want to teach me-”
“No,” Phoebe said. “I can do it, because I’ll always be better at this than you.” The picture moved from her face to her pad and stylus. “So we’re going to start with how to draw a face. Please pick up your stylus and draw an oval.”
Hank obediently drew an oval. And he thought of the three little ovals Sam had drawn on the day they’d met.
He’d do this for Sam.
Calvin Cage is the team of Robert P. Kaye (RobertPKaye.com) and Marlowe Kaye. Together and separately they commit various sins against literature, art and music in the upper left corner of the USA.