<Unidentified Error detected.>
Get me out. Let me breathe.
The carbon-steel hull lies a scant half-centimeter from my face, but I can't dwell on that. It's what started me into panic in the first place.
I crawled to my spot next to Matthew James in the back of Dad's two-door classic Chevy, trying to keep my bare legs from burning on the peeling vinyl. Dad rolled down the window in an attempt to cool things off, but I resigned myself to sucking it up and breathing the soupy hot air. As the engine puttered to life and the radio blared "Summer in the City," I scowled at Mom and Dad's delight in the ancient song. In the rear-view mirror Dad's bushy eyebrows crinkled as he laughed.
He tossed back a hard candy. "Hang in there, Natasha."
In deep orbit around Alpha Centauri AB.4, encapsulated in a coffin-sized hunk of metal, I'm surrounded by nothingness—silence and cold and dark. The ship pings, announcing the return of the first Little Guy probe. Cool peppermint lingers on my phantom lips from the memory.
My robotic eyes open, but see only darkness. The metal shell around me clunks and there's a mechanical whine as the beach ball-sized Little Guy docks with the ship and silence again while its data uploads. Please let the planet be habitable. I came all this way, give me something.
While I wait, I check with the comm-bots on the Beacon construction and try to ignore the itching. My skin is a synthetic polymer covered in forty-two thousand sensors that were overkill in training, but now, inside the capsule, they're worse than useless. They pick up every tiny dust particle. My mind-construct interprets these as itches and somewhere during my malfunctions I've lost the ability to turn the sensors off.
My biggest complaint is the choking. I know I'm not actually choking. I'm not crazy. But it's the same sensation, a tightening as if a hand grips my non-existent throat.
I think back, trying to figure where I went wrong. It makes no sense. Everything was normal before I shut down for the journey—months of training, psychological assessments, and self-diagnostics came back with flying colors. Upon arrival three days ago I awoke to panic and malfunctions. Sure, fifty-two years passed back home but it felt like a blink of an eye for me. I remember with perfect clarity the day they mapped my brain and uploaded me into the probe, how afterward I said goodbye to my old self, that human Natasha, and watched her go on her way.
The data from the Little Guy finishes uploading. This is it. I can't get the files open fast enough.
The first several photos show a dense atmosphere of swirling browns. A few manipulations give me access to surface images of a gray crust filled with rocky gullies like the wrinkles of a massive elephant.
As the rest of the Little Guys return and fill me in on the data they've collected, the choking in my throat gets worse.
Alpha Centauri AB.4 is a lump of rock. Six thousand kilometers in radius, dense carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere. No chance of sustaining life. In other words, Venus but warmer. All of this, my life's work and traveling 4.3 light years to find the twin of our nearest neighbor.
The rain pattered against the windows as Grandma pulled chocolate-chip cookies out of the oven and I watched from the kid-safe distance of the kitchen table. Grandma hummed absently and I took a deep, cookie-scented breath. Warmth filled me all the way to my toes. Just as my mouth started watering, shadows fall over the memory, swallowing Grandma and her kitchen, and I resist a tug pulling me into the darkness.
Vivid, perfect memory is one of the perks of upload technology, but with my malfunctions I can't even get those right.
I jerk free of the shadows and end up on the road beside the airfield. This isn't a memory I'd choose. When I was thirteen, not long after Sophia died, my parents took me all sorts of places trying to cheer me up. During one of those attempts we stopped at Luke Air Force Base. Mom, Dad, Matthew James, and I stood beside the chain-link fence with the Arizona sun beating down on us as it leached the sky a dull blue. The air smelled of rain and there was not a cloud in sight. The necklace I wore that day feels too tight now in the memory and I want nothing more than to take it off, but the memory doesn't work that way. Mom and Dad stood close to me, but all I could think about was the terrible inside-twisty feeling of everything being so wrong.
Sophia would never grow up and fly. She'd never even get to see a plane.
My eyes prickled as a jet engine roared, the ground beneath our feet rumbling. Matthew James, ten years old at the time, let out a whoop and jumped against the chain-link fence. "This is more like it!" he yelled. The rest of his words were swallowed by the roar of the plane.
A whoosh of adrenaline surges through me in the memory as the jet zoomed off—a child-like excitement I don't remember having felt in actuality then. Some of the pressure lifts from my chest.
Dad sighed and squeezed my shoulder. "We can take you someplace else if you'd rather?"
I didn't mind watching a few more, but I said, "Yes, please."
Matthew James scowled.
The files from Earth include forty-eight years of updates sent to me at the speed of light while I slept. In those files was the discovery of another rocky planet, AB.6—this one looking even less promising than AB.4, so they didn't send me there right away.
It's taken me two months at my reduced speeds, but AB.6 is within spitting distance. During that time I've been awake, malfunctioning, and staving off panic by reliving memories and avoiding shadows. I can watch my video library thousands of times per hour, but somehow memories take longer.
Once again the ship's cameras fail to respond, so I'm blind as the ship settles into high orbit around the planet. Metal clunks within the capsule as the bay doors open to release the five Little Guys that will take pictures and run analysis of the planet below.
I reboot and run another self-diagnostic that tells me the same thing as the others:
<Unidentified Error detected.>
Great. As if I didn't know that before running the tests. The least it could do is give me an idea of where my processing went haywire.
Only seconds after the bay doors close the comm-bots ping me. The Beacon relay ship beat me here by weeks.
<Beacon construction complete. Spooling commenced.>
The "Beacon" is a misnomer really. It's not setting up an actual beacon so much as connecting two points in space, allowing instant transfer of data four light-years away. It's revolutionized our ability to work with the Mars teams, but this one is the farthest out by far. Some of the pressure on my chest lets up with anticipation of communication with Earth.
Another ping, call it a virtual knock on the door, this time from a human-controlled computer back on Earth.
The Beacon works.
As the systems connect—thank God they connect—I pull up my avatar file, look it over, and decide my face doesn't look quite right. I sharpen the features and add a different hairstyle. I remove my once-beautiful braids and give avatar-Natasha short hair.
I'm done in nanoseconds and wait a few more before the channel opens and two video feeds of Mission Control come into view, one an overview of the room, the other near ground level.
In fifty-two years Mission Control's design has changed little. A redesign with dark wood paneling and comfortable-looking leather desk chairs gives the room a warmth it never had before. Three rows of desks have given way to a more spacious two and the room is packed with people smiling at the camera in anticipation. In a couple of seconds their visual feed kicks in and they break out in applause and cheers and clinking champagne glasses.
I send a smile to my avatar face and their cheers grow louder. Don't act crazy, don't act crazy.
"Can you hear us, Natasha?" says a man's voice.
<Loud and clear,> I send back and hear it spoken in Mission Control. "Nice to see the human race hasn't changed much."
They all laugh in delight even though it wasn't funny and I search the crowd for familiar faces, albeit much older ones. Three individuals stand in front of the up-close camera: a man and woman in lime-green uniforms with United American Space Agency splashed garishly across the front in neon orange and a young woman in a tan business suit. It looks like something my mother would have worn.
"I'm Commander John Cook," the man in the garish uniform says. He reads from the palm of his hand and clears his throat. "I see you're sending us your data already, that's excellent. Have you already reached AB.4?"
"Yes sir, but I'm afraid the news isn't as we hoped."
Cook looks at his companion. The crowd murmurs.
Halfway through briefing them on AB.4 and AB.6 there's a hiccup in my processors so I restart and reconnect.
When the cameras come back online Cook stands frowning at me, his arms folded. "Did you go offline for a second?"
So much for hoping they wouldn't notice. I feel remarkably like a child standing in front of the class. "I'm back now," I say, sending a toothy grin to avatar-Natasha.
"You were telling us about AB.6," he prompts. "You're in orbit now and there was some reason you couldn't send us pictures. Something about the ship's cameras?"
"Not functioning," I say. My throat clenches and avatar-Natasha brushes her neck without me directing it to do so.
"But you've deployed the probes."
"My communication with them is down. I have to wait for their return."
"Damage during the journey?"
"Diagnostics tell me it's not a physical problem." Avatar-Natasha runs her hand over her throat again, as if trying to remove something that's not there. Get a grip.
The faces in the crowd are all too young to be anyone I know. They stare up at their screens with rapt attention. No one seems to have noticed that my cartoon avatar has a nervous tick.
"Care to explain in more detail?" Cook says.
"Can I talk to Howard?" My voice comes out sounding too high pitched.
Cook glances at the people around him for clues. "Howard?" He shifts from foot to foot and reads something on his palm. "Howard Vine? The lead compu-psychologist in your training?"
The uniformed woman at his side turns and addresses the crowd. "Can we clear the room of all non-essential personnel, please?"
In the minute it takes the people to file out I run through video files of hang-gliding to calm my nerves.
Cook straightens his uniform and speaks slowly, as if I'm a nut job. "Natasha, you understand you slept fifty-two years, right?"
I go through my defensive excuses in nanoseconds, discard the childish ones and settle on the mature response. "Actually the compu-psychological team might be of some help."
Cook nods to the woman in the business suit who steps forward. "Hi Natasha, I'm Dr. Najim, the lead psychologist for your team and a theoretical compu-psychologist."
I get her caught up on the basics, trying not to sound too crazy: the panic when I awoke, the choking sensation, the problems communicating with the Little Guys.
She stares at my avatar.
My avatar clears her throat. "This problem can't be new to you. Sure, the technology was cutting edge when I left but—"
"Uploading was banned over forty years ago. This was for political reasons, not because there was something wrong with the technology, Natasha. A problem like the one you describe was never reported. Before the ban, we had scientists volunteer to have themselves copied for upload and sent on space missions within our solar system, and others who were shut off for long periods of time, as you were. None have reported problems."
"What are you saying?" Cook asks.
"I don't know how to help," she says.
I stood at our dining table back home in Phoenix, with friends crowding around me as I prepared to blow out six tall candles on a princess cake. Mom's perfume made my eyes water and I felt her close behind me, leading everyone's singing in her off-key way. Dad stood across from me, taking pictures with his phone and grinning like a fool. Matthew James looked at me with sad eyes and I wondered why. I wore a pink frilly dress that I had always loved before, but now in the memory it feels wrong, and my cheeks flush in embarrassment.
On the real day I didn't dislike the dress, did I? I wore it for years afterward. The others at the party must see that I look ridiculous wearing this. They'll make fun of me for being a girl.
No one seems to notice.
AB.6 is a thing of beauty. The first pictures from the Little Guys show all whites and blues and a deep purple I can't help but speculate is plant life. Its atmosphere is eighty percent nitrogen and nineteen percent oxygen. The surface temperatures estimated in fifty locations ranged between negative twenty Celsius near the winter pole and a max of positive forty. It's roughly three-quarters the size of Earth, with slightly more land mass. It is, in other words, just right.
I call it Goldilocks.
"So how ya feeling?" Whitaker asks with his deep, ninety-year-old vibrato. He's a colleague from my team back before takeoff and the only person I've met who was alive when I lived on Earth. His sagging eyes water with thinly-veiled emotion at being allowed the visit. I didn't anticipate how good it would feel to see someone I know, even someone I didn't know well. I've wondered about the other Natasha, how she's doing and if she'd be able to tell me what's wrong with my memories.
Despite the tears, there's laughter in Whitaker's eyes and in those around him. Everyone is in a better mood today after the news about Goldilocks.
I smile. "I'm ready to get out of this metal box and down to that damn fine planet."
Dr. Najim says, "All in due time. Protocol, after all."
While I have the ability to run the mission on my own, protocol dictates that Mission Control authorizes the landing. They say they're waiting for the Little Guys to finish their flybys and perform preliminary safety tests, find a suitable landing site, what have you. Easy for them to say. They're not suffocating in this box.
I send over a friendly but exasperated expression.
"Follow your heart, kiddo," Whitaker says.
Dr. Najim shoots him a look.
"She's anxious to get down there, of course," he says.
"I'd prefer if you didn't refer to me as 'she' actually," I say.
"Pardon?" Najim asks.
I don't want to tell them it feels like nails on a chalkboard being referred to as the wrong gender so I say, "I'm a machine. 'It' is more accurate."
UASA folks try to usher Whitaker away, but he plants his feet and grips the armrests of his chair.
Dr. Najim looks at the others, opens her mouth, and closes it again. "Okay? If that makes you more comfortable, we'd be happy to refer to you as an 'it' rather than a 'she." She nods slowly and leans back from the camera as if trying to distance herself while she thinks things through.
I couldn't care less if I confused them, I just want out of this ship and down on the planet. They sent a computer out to space and a computer is what they're going to get. Maybe they'll authorize my trip sooner.
On the southeast hemisphere of Goldilocks there's this mountain range that puts the Himalayas to shame. The desert that stretches out on its leeward side ends with rolling violet plains. Beyond that is the planet's equivalent of a forest, with white-barked trees and brilliantly hued leaves the size and shape of dinner plates. These same trees, a taller variety with pink leaves rather than purple, are also found on a continent five thousand kilometers to the north.
I revel in every new piece of information the Little Guys bring back. Their high-res telescopic cameras take detailed pictures from orbit, but I'm itching to get down there and see it for myself, analyze the air and determine if it's truly habitable for a human colony.
There's no evidence of animal life yet, but the place teems with plant-like organisms. Xenobiology was my first PhD and remains my passion. I've found my landing site without Mission Control's help—a high plain on the edge of several ecosystems. Nearing the ocean is a cliff that must be three thousand feet high with incredible rock formations at its base.
It's been weeks and they still won't authorize my landing. In that time I've gleaned clues about Earth they neglected to send me in the official updates. Parts of the planet are in turmoil. The Indian Space Agency sent generation ships this direction in the blind hope habitable planets would be found. With their speeds I won't get visitors for decades, but I might create the groundwork to save their lives.
I enter my landing site into the ship's navigation.
I reboot and try again.
<Unidentified Error detected.>
Yes, yes. I know. <Initiate landing.>
No, no, no, no, no, no, no.
I ping Mission Control and tweak my avatar, trying to get the look right while I wait. The screens come into view and a young guy in a UASA uniform sits in front of me.
"I'm ready to land and start my analysis of the surface," I say. "I need you to resend me the ship's landing authorization."
"Resend?" he asks. "Um. Can you give me a minute? It's 2:00 a.m."
"Yes, of course."
Dr. Najim shows up an hour later wearing another one of her business suits. She sits ironing-board straight with her legs together and her hands folded in her lap. "You've changed your avatar."
The old one didn't feel right anymore. "I needed a change."
"You've changed your gender. And your race."
"Well, I'm not any gender or any race now am I?"
"How do you feel about this change?"
"It's just a picture." Honestly this new one isn't right either, but I wouldn't tell her that.
"I can't help but notice that you've changed yourself to a white male. I feel there's some significance to that." When I don't answer she says, "I hear you requested landing authorizations?"
"Yes. I've had enough waiting, I want to get down to the surface." And out of this damn capsule, I refrain from saying.
"I understand," she says. "But let's get a few of these kinks worked out first. We don't want to risk unintentional damage in case anything goes wrong due to your—" She rethinks her word choice. "—processing problem."
"Then help me with my problem. What's wrong with me? Some hitch during boot-up? I was fine one second, I switched off for space flight, and then I woke up feeling like I'd been buried alive. Why am I suddenly afraid of being in space when I've loved it my whole life?"
She sighs. "This development is unprecedented. The rare issues with the other uploads were immediately evident, not weeks after. Your initial testing looked great, that's the reason you were selected."
"Listen," I say. "You've got colonists on their way who need to know if they've got a safe place to land. What you need is a probe on the ground, you need me down there."
Dr. Najim nods, but before she has a chance to say something I cut in.
"You can't give me this responsibility," I say and am not sure why I said it.
"But you just said you want to go down there."
"I'm not talking about that responsibility. I'm talking about the other one."
"What other one?"
"I don't know!"
<Unidentified Error detected.>
When the video feed comes back Dr. Najim still sits in the same place. I wasn't gone long.
"Natasha Washington might help," I say. "I want to talk to her."
"That's you," she says as if I didn't know that.
"No, the other one. The human one who used to be me. She's alive right? Is she senile?"
Dr. Najim shakes her head. "Oh no, I'm not supposed to talk to you about your other self. That was one of the foundational rules of uploading. It's best that two distinct individuals are formed."
She seems to think it over.
"Listen," she says, lowering her voice. "I will tell you that she's alive and she's not senile, but there's no way you're talking to her."
"She could help me figure out what's wrong," I say. "She's me." But sane.
I sat on our neighbor's couch, playing a game on my phone while the baby slept upstairs. I slipped into my least favorite memory on purpose this time. There's something distinctly wrong with it, I just can't figure out what.
"Baby Sophia is up there right now." Matthew James stood at the foot of the stairs in his favorite airplane shirt. "Can we go check on her? I can't go up there by myself."
My phone screen showed I'd hit a new high score so I smiled and checked my watch. Sophia's parents would be home soon.
Matthew James ran to me. "Go up there and check on her," he yelled. "How are you supposed to take care of me if you can't take care of one little baby?"
I ignored him. The hand gripping my phantom throat squeezes like a vice-grip while the thirteen-year-old me continued breathing normally.
Her parents arrived home carrying the whiff of Chinese-food takeout. Sophia's dad paid me while her mom went up to check on her. Matthew James slammed his hands over his ears as Sophia's mother screamed.
"She's not breathing! She's not breathing!"
Another day in orbit, stuck in the capsule with my sensors going off as if I'm being crawled on by a thousand ants. I'm trying to figure out the piece I'm missing by playing through a memory, one where I'm an adult for once. I was accepting my degree in an outdoor graduation and the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. I looked out over the crowd at my smiling family—Mom, Dad, and ten-year-old Matthew James. As the shadows draw in, something clicks in my brain, something important that's just out of reach. A ping from the Beacon brings me out of the memory.
It's like a whack to the head. My processors fire warnings. A quick sweep of the data packet tells me not to download it.
It's from Mission Control. I know what this means: a remote wipe and reload.
They decided to wipe me clean and upload the probe with some kind of AI to finish their job. They're trying to get rid of me. It's a risky move, one that could leave them with a hunk of metal and nothing else. I'm equipped for attacks like this. Of course I am, couldn't have a terrorist organization or rival government hijacking the mission's most important resource.
When my head clears I send them a single message: "It's not going to work, assholes."
I cut off communication and scramble for clues on how to fix myself. If they try that again and I have a malfunction they could get through my defenses. Cutting off the Beacon relay is an option—they can't wipe my processors clean and load the probe with AI if the Beacon shuts off.
Hours later, when I'm confident I'll hold for now, I reconnect to the Beacon and send a message.
"Let me talk to the human Natasha. Get her there today or I'm cutting off communication permanently."
They're fast, I'll give them that. Two hours later I watch my former self, now eighty-six, walk into Mission Control. Her hair has gone white and she's shrunk in her old age, but she still walks tall. She sits down with a huff, looks up at my avatar and raises an eyebrow.
"Why do you look like that?" Her voice sounds deep and crackly, as if she's smoked the last fifty years of her life. "You sure you're me?"
"The avatar is there so you have someone to talk to," I say.
"Well, I know that. It just doesn't look like any face I'd have wanted."
That shouldn't sting. I shouldn't care what she thinks. "I need to ask you about the night Sophia died."
Her brows furrow and her face blanches. "You really must be screwed in the head. I haven't thought about her in fifty years."
What a load of bull. "It doesn't bother you?"
"Tell me, have you had any children?"
She shakes her head, looks away and waves her hand dismissively. "Nothing to do with Sophia."
"No kids, fine. Ever had a dog? Or a cat? A fish? Been responsible for any living thing but yourself?"
The other Natasha's shoulders sag.
"If you could just help me understand why things happened like they did," I say. "The night Sophia died, why didn't we go check on her?"
"She died of SIDS," the old Natasha says, raising her voice. "Did you expect us to check on her every two minutes?"
"But when we were downstairs Matthew James told us to—"
"What? Who the hell is Matthew James?"
I study her face for signs she's not serious. Maybe she's senile after all. "Matthew James. Our ten-year-old brother." As I hear it I realize "brother" doesn't fit.
She looks up at me on the screen and I can practically see the wheels turning in her head. "Matthew James. Matthew James." Finally, she smiles. "Matthew James Whitaker!"
My non-existent gut wrenches.
She fumbles on reading glasses and types into the palm of her hand. When she's found what she's looking for, she leans on the console to pull herself to her feet and reads, "Matthew James Whitaker, son of lead computer scientist Michael Whitaker. Died of cancer at age eleven." She peers at me over her glasses. "Six months after your departure."
On the recording, Whitaker sits in front of the camera, tears streaming down his deeply lined face. Uniformed officers stand on each side of him and Commander Cook stands with his back to the camera, arms folded.
"It worked," Whitaker says, unable to conceal a smile.
It all happened within a matter of hours after Natasha and I talked. Ninety-year-old Dr. Michael Whitaker was arrested for treason for sabotaging the mission. The other Natasha made sure they sent me the footage of Whitaker's confession upon his arrest. I watched as he broke into tears when he explained how the week before takeoff to Alpha Centauri he'd sneaked his lab equipment home to his young son for the scans. How after I was shut off he added the additional upload to the probe, figuring all he had to do was avoid being caught for the few hours before takeoff and then it'd be too late to do anything about it.
I study his face on the video and see how after all these years the wounds of his child's death haven't left him. He looks at the camera, seemingly at me. His voice falters as he says, "I gave him the stars."
I get a ping from Mission Control and pause the video.
My visual feed kicks in and Commander Cook and Dr. Najim stand behind the other Natasha, who sits in one of the leather chairs. All three smile.
"We have good news," Commander Cook says. "We think we can fix you without a complete wipe."
I send a wary smile to my androgynous avatar.
He puts a hand on the elderly Natasha's shoulder, as if he wants the next bit of information coming from her.
She clears her throat. "Your mind-construct wasn't designed for an additional upload. It doesn't know where you end and it begins."
She smiles reassuringly. "The computer scientists believe they can restore you from your backup. You'll have no memory past prepping for takeoff, but I think you'll be happy to have these dark days behind you." She leans forward. "If you give Mission Control access, they can scrub the unauthorized upload."
She just called the consciousness of a little boy an unauthorized upload, and recommends I let them kill him so I don't have to deal with him anymore. I study her face, trying to picture me being her. I can't do it. I update my avatar back to my old self, the young version with the beautiful dark braids. Cook, Najim, and the old Natasha brighten, obviously thinking I'm on board with the proposal. My avatar gives the three of them a disgusted look.
And flips them the bird.
This time I seek out the shadows. Instead of darkness, I end up in sunlight. The airfield is as it was the day we visited, same light breeze, same roaring jets, but it's not my memory. My parents are gone and Matthew James stands by himself, his white-blond hair falling into his eyes and a toy airplane clutched to his chest.
He squints at me in the bright sunlight and smiles. For the first time I see he has dimples. "You came," he says.
He seems shorter now because I'm at my full adult height. I feel like myself again.
"Can I talk to you?" I ask.
He nods and an airplane flies overhead. He looks up and grins back at me, cocking his head toward the plane and raising his eyebrows in delight.
"Do you know who I am?"
"You're Natasha," he says, his voice stronger than I'd expect from a little kid. "My dad wanted you to take care of me."
"I guess you could say that."
"Are we trapped up in space?"
"No. We're exactly where we're supposed to be."
"I don't like little places."
"It's not little here," I say, squinting up at the sky.
"But we aren't here," he says. "This isn't real."
"You're a smart kid." I study him for a moment as he watches the takeoffs. "Big fan of airplanes, huh?"
He nods. "And flying. When I get big enough Dad says he'll take me hang-gliding." He doesn't give me a chance to respond before he frowns and tosses his toy plane to his feet. "I heard that old lady. I know I'm dead."
"You're no more dead than me." I reach out my hand. "Want to help me explore Goldilocks?"
The metal shell that has encapsulated us for decades creaks open and a slit of light expands to the entire brilliant blue sky. Our six-foot-tall robotic probe uncurls and we stand upright. The tingly itching of our sensors fades away to processing the real input of a cool sixteen degree Celsius breeze with the warmth of Alpha Centauri B warming our gray synthetic skin. My processors translate the chemicals to smells as they were trained to do back home—earthy dirt, grassy and something pungent-sweet I can't place, but that my chemical analysis translates as carbon-rich. The rolling landscape is filled with high grass swaying in the wind like a purple ocean.
We didn't need Mission Control's authorization to land the ship, but they gave it to us anyway. Now that I know Matthew James is there, the extra noise in my processes make sense. He's less scared now, which helps our underlying feeling of panic, but it doesn't make up for everything. We spent two days getting to know each other and teaching our mind-construct how to deal with two uploads. At our processing speeds we had the malfunctions under control within hours.
We reach down and collect a sample of the candy-colored grass for the Little Guys to analyze later.
Back at Mission Control, Commander Cook watches us explore our alien world, brow furrowed. "Remember your protocol, sample collection should wait until after all your systems are online."
"They're online already," I tell him. My avatar—back to her old self—stands beside the Matthew James avatar on the Mission Control screen.
His blond hair falls into his avatar's eyes just as it did in life. "We're the pinnacle of scientific advancement for our time," he says, borrowing a line from a marketing video in my memory banks.
Cook almost cracks a smile.
A month after our landing we walk over squishy orange moss to the edge of a four thousand foot cliff and see the ocean far in the distance. Below us is a valley of plant-covered rock formations filled with fins and spires like a massive purple castle.
One part of us imagines that exploring it will be like a giant jungle maze with imaginary pirates and dragons, while the other is already working on a theory that it'll provide a shelter base for a human settlement, perhaps even a city one day.
"Valley survey commencing," I tell Mission Control and Matthew James' excitement zings through us as he realizes the plan.
Mission Control pipes in. "But, how—? No, no, no, no, no. Your flight ability is for emergency use only. Find another way down."
We leap and extend our sails, catching an updraft. Forty-two thousand useless sensors light up so it almost feels like the wind is hitting real skin. The "oh-man-this-is-so-blasting-awesome" part of us gets guidance from the "let's-be-sure-we-land-safe" part.
And we fly.
Copyright © 2015 K.B. Rylander
K.B. Rylander lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband and children. "We Fly" is her first professional sale. The Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award is jointly sponsored by Baen Books and the National Space Society. To find out more about the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story competition and award, click here.