Running the survey course reinvigorated Harper somewhat. The astrogation system would politely ask to confirm a change in vector or to review findings. Not that the program needed his input, but it made Harper feel useful. The parade of orbiting rock was soothing and he spent more time awake, embroidering his dress whites, reading, or watching the stars shift.
He stopped counting days, but 243 degrees into his orbit through the asteroid belt the ship flashed him a red light, telling him there was more than a course correction or particularly interesting mineral deposit to take note of.
With heavy detachment, Harper read his screens. Faint transmission static was leaking out of an asteroid ahead. Keying a visual brought up an ordinary looking rock that the ship was already scanning to pinpoint the transmission source. Allowing himself no hope, Harper waited. The ship quickly had an answer; its scans couldn’t thoroughly penetrate the asteroid because there was a reflective shell just beneath the rock. What little the ship could see of the interior were regular tunnels, rooms and indications of a docking bay. Without hesitation he hailed the asteroid.
Harper and his ship sat in a dimly lit, rock-walled bay. He’d received no human response to his hail, only an automated docking sequence. With a careless temerity, he’d confirmed and let his ship be guided through the hatch that appeared in the rock. Harper assumed the asteroid was an empty or abandoned mining base and that the chance of unfriendlies was low. He looked forward to getting out of the ship for a while, at least. Once the rock had closed seamlessly shut behind him, some of his courage fled. To fortify himself, Harper put on his dress whites. Before moving out into the echoing bay he looked himself over in the mirror. He looked good, the white contrasting against dark skin burnt deeper by space and a dozen suns. He could handle a big, old empty station.
Harper had noticed a slight gravity when the ship docked, but it was more apparent as his ship-slippered feet touched the smooth rock floor. He bounced on his toes experimentally. It was nice, just enough to give one a sense of “down”. Out of habit he looked around for some sort of map or signage, but there were none. He was checking the partial map the ship had made in its initial scan when someone behind him cleared their throat and he almost dropped the handheld.
“I am so sorry.” The stranger was apologising as Harper spun around. “I really did not mean to scare you.”
Harper sized up the other man, taking in the grubby tech jumpsuit and darkened hollows around the eyes. He grunted, “Any reason you didn’t answer my hail?” There was no hesitation in the other man as he answered.
“The insane computer that lives here monitors all transmissions made except for the automatics. It probably would have destroyed you.” He pondered for a moment. “Or tempted you in and destroyed you. Or tempted you in, tortured, then destroyed you.” Harper very carefully put his handheld away and pulled a knife from a holster at his waist. The other man sighed. “That is a completely appropriate thing to do, but you don’t need to worry, the computer doesn’t know you’re here.”
“Not that a knife would be much help against a computer.” Harper hefted it while he spoke, “but if you’re the insane one it could prove useful.”
The other man shrugged. “I don’t mind, if it makes you more comfortable.”
Harper checked the other man for weapons and put away his knife. The whole thing still made him uncomfortable, but there wasn’t any point in waving a blade around.
“Are there other people here?”
“No, just me.”
Harper frowned. “So it’s just you and this supposedly insane computer, alone, in this rock.” The other man nodded and moved towards one of the doors ringing the bay, motioning Harper to follow. As they moved down a hallway that followed the shallow curve of the asteroid, the other man gave his name, Ahntil, and a running monologue of his daily life with an insane computer.
Harper was unsure how much he believed in this unhinged computer, encased in rock, hurtling with a bunch of other rocks around a star in the middle of nowhere. It didn’t seem impossible so much as pointless. Why Ahntil was there seemed even more pointless, though he tried to explain as well as he could to Harper.
“I fix parts that break down. And it gets bored. It’s always collecting data and running programs, but sometimes I guess it needs other stimulation, so it’ll talk to me or play pranks.” Ahntil’s step hesitated, then he went on, “I don’t really like its pranks. But the conversation is okay.”
The curving hallway seemed to go on forever. Harper guessed that, like the docking bay, the space set aside for human use lay just under the outer shell of the asteroid. The computer would take up most of the interior space, like the meat of a nut. He stopped Ahntil.
“Where are we going?”
The other man looked around with wide eyes. “I thought you might want to see the computer.” They resumed walking. Ahntil’s monologue of trivialities ran down, leaving Harper wondering just what qualities the computer valued in conversation.
“How can you tell it’s insane?”
A shrug. “You can just tell. What it does makes no sense. And sometimes it is not very nice.” Harper wanted to know what the computer did, what it was for, what data it gathered, but Ahntil either didn’t know or wouldn’t tell.
They came suddenly to a bank of windows that interrupted the roughly smoothed rock walls with floor to ceiling glass for several meters. Harper whistled. He was looking at the interior of a sphere, hundreds of cabinets banked in arches, curving away on either side, diminishing to an indistinct grey blur at the far end of the room.
In the centre, supported by enormous struts jutting from every angle, hulked a mass of electronic-looking things jammed together in a ball. Lights blinked busily across its flanks. Harper felt exposed behind the wall of glass and found he was whispering to Ahntil.
“It can’t see us?”
The other man shook his head. “It doesn’t see so much as it senses, but it doesn’t care what happens inside anyway. It really doesn’t know you’re here. The only way it learned that I existed was because I talked to it. You probably shouldn’t use your handheld while you’re here, though.” Harper eyed Ahntil, wondering how the other man had become the computer’s acquaintance and tender. He began to ask, but checked himself, there were more important things he needed to know.
“Okay. So, where are we? This star system, I mean.”
“It is kind of off the beaten path, isn’t it?” Ahntil ran his hands through his hair and beckoned Harper onward. “I can get you maps.” They left the window, moving again past faceless, endless rock hallway until they were suddenly confronted by a doorway cleanly cut into the wall.
The closet was narrow but long, wrapping in the same gentle curve of the hallway some dozen meters off each side of the door. It looked half-lived in, as if Ahntil only summered there.
Harper watched the other man begin rummaging through boxes, carelessly tossing plates and blankets aside. He tried to place how the declining economy of a handful of planets lead to him standing in a madman’s hovel on some unnamed, computer-filled rock in the middle of nowhere. He’d given it up and was staring comfortably into the middle distance when Ahntil jumped up, raising a map tape above his head.
“Archaic technology, but a map nonetheless!” Stepping carefully around the clutter, he worked back towards Harper. “I’m sure your ship can do something with it.”
Harper took the tape, turning the compact cartridge over in his hands. Map tapes had faded out of use before he’d been born, but it was possible his ship could get something out of it, if only because the damned thing was smarter than he was.
“Thank you. Is there something I can give you in return? I mean, don’t you need this?”
Ahntil shrugged, shaking his head. “I don’t really expect to leave. I don’t need to know where I am.” His eyes brightened and he leaned against the wall, very close to Harper, who stiffened. Ahntil pulled back, maybe remembering the knife, but his eyes remained alight. “You could stay here for a day, maybe, before going? The computer has been very busy lately and I’ve had nobody to talk to. And a change of pace is nice, isn’t it?”
Harper weighed his options and gave in. “Alright, one day.”