It wasn’t terrible.
Ahntil made pleasant enough, if tedious, company. Despite skilful manoeuvring, Harper still hadn’t been able to coax out the other man’s past or what his theories for the computer’s purpose was. He did find satisfaction in reeling off the trading problems that had led him to getting blitzed and sending his ship into the middle of nowhere.
The two men supped from the strange combination of diet paste and rations picked from a startlingly large storeroom close to the docking bay. Harper guessed, by the number of opened boxes and volume of yet-untouched crates, that Ahntil had been living on the asteroid a long, long time.
“What will you do when the rations run out?”
“I’ve a long time before that,” Ahntil made a vague gesture. “And there’s still the diet paste, and the stores for that are pretty much endless. It’ll be more boring, but I’m not going to die of starvation.”
Harper tried again to gain some real idea of the man’s interactions with the computer. “You plan on dying of something else?”
“Old age.” With a smile, Ahntil guessed at Harper’s purpose. “It doesn’t play dangerous pranks, Harper. If the computer killed me, it wouldn’t have anyone to talk to.”
Ahntil found extra blankets and made Harper a pallet in one of the small, open-doored closets honeycombing the rock. He would have preferred to sleep on the ship, but Harper felt indebted. Inconvenience was well worth a map out of nowhere.
A hand on his shoulder woke him not too long after. Fuzzy-eyed, Harper peered up at the other man, who thrust a ragged piece of paper at him. Written in plain capitals on the back of a ration label, it caused a surge of fear and curiosity through Harper.
“COMPUTER PAYING ATTENTION AGAIN. WILL LEAVE ME ALONE SOON, BUT WANTS TO TALK. CANNOT TAKE SHIP YET. FOLLOW ME.”
Slipping from under the thin blanket, Harper gathered himself, stretching, before following Ahntil. He assumed the other man was taking him somewhere out of the computer’s range and suppressed audible panic when they took a turn out of one of the endless halls into a bright room shaped like a half moon—the arc of one wall entirely glass, overlooking the computer.
Ahntil laid a reassuring hand on Harper’s arm and motioned him to sit. Harper found a spot as close to the door as he could and hunkered down. With a smile, Ahntil turned back to the window.
The voice that came trilling in response was so utterly unlike Harper’s expectations that he started. In smooth alto tones that were undeniably lovely, it explained in two words why Ahntil stayed.
“Hello darling!” The other man smiled and two began chatting, the computer talking about what it’d found, Ahntil going over what he’d fixed. Slowly, the conversation turned to trivialities, Ahntil talking about something he’d read once before he’d come to the asteroid. It sounded familiar to Harper and he wondered if he’d read it too, when he realised that the other man was relating Harper’s trading troubles.
“So the poor devil finds that the government of the country had gone back into a single king’s hands and his coin is nearly worthless. He’s able, by dint of wise managing, to buy silks and perfumes enough for the next stop, but once arrived he finds yet another difficulty.”
Harper was impressed. Ahntil, who was pedantic in practical conversation, could spin a tale in a decently archaic style. The computer didn’t interrupt as Ahntil embroidered with extraneous detail and a romantic undercurrent. He finished with a flourish,
“His honour under fire, discouraged form every angle, he stepped aboard the creaking planks of the ship waving a goodbye to his lady-love. Their parting look was blurred with tears, as they knew in their hearts it would be their last.”
“What a lovely story! How sad an ending though, that they have to part.” Harper could have sworn the computer’s voice was thick with emotion as it addressed Ahntil. “You’ll never leave me, will you darling?”
Ahntil pressed his hand against the wall of glass. “Of course not. But not all loves are so lucky that fortune keeps them together. What else could the man do?”
The computer laughed, “Well, it’s so obvious.” Harper’s eyes widened as he realised what Ahntil had done. What he’d wracked his and his ship’s brains over was utter simplicity to a computer of this size.
Outlining a programme so obvious in retrospect that Harper felt like a complete fool, the computer happily explained to Ahntil how the story should end. As he worked to embed in his mind what it was saying, Harper’s fingers itched for his handheld, but the threat of drawing attention to himself kept his hands clenched in excitement at his sides. The logic of the first part of the plan was verified by what Harper had seen when he returned to Igmat, before his disastrous drunk.
Ahntil and the computer moved to lovers’ cooing and Harper chivalrously looked away, repeating in his head what he needed to do next as loud as he could. His lack of sleep caught up with him at some point, and he dropped off, soft voices droning in his ear.
When he woke, Harper was on his ship, a folded bit of paper beside his head.
“AUTOMATICS HAVE BEEN SET TO RESPOND TO DEPARTURE REQUEST. SAFE TO GO, THANK YOU FOR VISITING.”
Rubbing grains of sleep from his eyes, Harper re-read the note and padded up to the bridge. He sent a departure request and left the rest up to his ship while he changed out of his dress whites.
Back in the asteroid belt, Harper gave the map tape to the ship to figure out and went back to his survey. He had 117 degrees of orbit to finish cataloguing. As he hadn’t been able to glean from Ahntil if the system was claimed or not, Harper figured that a full survey report of a previously uncharted belt couldn’t hurt his plans for comeback on the trade routes. There was little to nothing of interest in the system and no worry that Ahntil and his insane computer would be bothered.
The ship finished interpreting the map and plotting the course back the same day the survey was concluded. For a moment Harper entertained the idea that it had finished earlier but was politely waiting for the survey to be done, but he shoved it away as something he’d rather not think about.