Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Pod and Planet Fiction Contest Entry: Borrowed Time

“Who’s there?” Sam called out nervously.

There was no response and honestly Sam would have been terrified if there had been one. It had been two years since he had last talked to another human being and this wasn't the first time that being all alone on the outpost had gotten to him. He sighed and turned back to the repairs on the drone.


“Shit, Sam! That’s… that’s bad, man, god, I’m so sorry!” 

Samual Dumonte (just Sam to his friends) was still numb with shock and could only nod. He took another swig of his drink and felt the cool liquid burn a little on his tongue before letting it slide down his throat into his traitorous body.

“Did the doctors say if there is anything they can do?” Gerry, Sam’s closest friend and co-worker at the factory, asked. “Like, chemo or surgery or something? Anything?”

“No,” he muttered. “Its everywhere. Too much for chemo the doc said. The treatment would kill me before its all gone.” 

“Well shit.” Gerry turned back to his drink and shook his head. “You hear about all those new nano therapies on the net, I thought maybe one of those... “ he trailed off. 

“Benefits don’t cover those. Too expensive I guess.”

The friends sat in silence for a couple minutes. 

“Does Jane know?”

Sam shook his head, fearing that his voice would break. What am I going to tell Jane? he thought to himself. How are her and the kids going to make it without me?


The mining drone was repaired with a new controller board and the carapace was all closed up. Sam keyed the command on his command pad and a robotic arm dropped down from the ceiling and lifted up the slumbering drone and moved along a track on the ceiling to deposit it in its charging cradle. Numbers flashed on the readout showing it would need at least ten hours to recharge the depleted batteries. 

“Have a good sleep 202,” Sam called to the repaired drone. He checked his pad and entered some commands to instruct the drone to resume mining duties on the next rotation. “Back to work tomorrow, you slacker.” He scrolled down and made a mental note that another drone in that shift required routine maintenance. “Looks like I’ll be working on your buddy 204 next.”

As he turned around and started walking out of the main drone garage, an airlock door opened at one end of the dimly lit space and four drones the same model as MD-202 shambled in covered in scratches and micro meteor pits from years worth of mining the last veins of veldspar and scordite from the massive planetoid the outpost was built upon. One by one they marched under the spot where the robotic arm could pick them up and carry them to one side where a station awaited to pressure wash the rock dust and debris from their frames and then the meter long multi-legged drones would be carried over to their own charging cradle beside their repaired shift-mate. Soon all five drones would be cleaned and hibernating side by side. Afterwards, the robotic nanny would move up to another parallel track and start picking up and awaking five different mining drones to send them out the airlock for their twelve hour shift exploring the airless surface and drilling boreholes for the precious ores.

Sam didn't wait around to watch the process as he had seen it play out hundreds of times before and he knew the simple garage AI would inform him if there was a problem. He walked through the doors into a corridor that led to a second smaller garage where another problem awaited.


“Hello Mr. Dumonte, please have a seat.”

Sam eased himself into the comfortable chair and couldn't help but stare out the office window at the view of the city from this high up. 

“So, Mr Dumonte… can I call you Sam? Sam, I've looked over your file and I really think you will be a good fit for us.”

“Oh yeah?” Sam asked sarcastically. “Does my file also mention the part where my body is riddled with cancer?”

The man on the other side of the desk, Mr. Golipe, put down his tablet and folded his hands with a very patient look on his face. “I am quite aware of your condition, Sam, and I think we can help with that.” He reached over to one side of his desk and picked up a data sheet that activated at his touch and he turned and placed it in front of Sam. “Have you heard of nano therapy?” he asked. Sam made no move to pick up the sheet. “Its a treatment that works with traditional therapies by using specially programmed nanobots to-”

“I know what it is,” Sam interrupted, “and I also know how damn expensive it is!” He leaned forward. “I don’t understand, why am I here? Gerry’s friend said you might be able to help but I don’t see how!”

Golipe’s expression never changed at Sam’s emotional outburst. Seeing that his guest was finished, he started again. “We have need for a drone maintenance specialist like yourself for a position that we’ve had a significant amount of difficulty obtaining applicants for.”

“Position? You want me to work for you? Did you not hear what I told you about me dying?”

“Of course! But its like this, Sam,” he leaned closer, “we have several mining facilities that are near the end of operational life but can still be profitable with a skeleton crew maintaining our automated drone drilling operations. One of them in particular we believe we can run with a single technician as long as they are willing to put up with some minor hardships such as solitude and isolation.

“That’s where someone like you comes in, Sam. Its actually still profitable for us to pay for the treatment and pay you an equivalent salary to what you earn now on the factory floor… as long as you agree to work for us for a certain period of time.”

“‘Period of time’? What does that mean?”

Golipe looked a little sheepish. “Ten years.”

“Ten years?! You want me to go to some forsaken outpost by myself for ten years?”

“Let’s be frank, Sam, we both know you have no options left. What’s your wife going to do to provide for herself and the kids? We both know what happens to kids left to their own devices when the parents have to work so much to simply put food on the table and a roof over their heads.” He leaned back and let his face soften a little. “Look Sam, this is a good deal. Your wife won’t need to work two jobs and she’ll be there for the kids. You get to live. And in ten years you get to come back and maybe play with grand kids. Your other option is to go home now and die in what, two months? Three?”

Sam looked away dejectedly, ashamed to let the other man see tears welling in his eyes. He looked out the office window and let his mind wander for a minute until the pain in his heart subsided a little.

“OK,” he said quietly, “how do we start?”


In the smaller garage there was a rack of berths, each about 30 cm high by 30 cm wide and twice as deep, stacked five wide and five high. In all of the 25 spots except one there rested a small drone that was plugged in and charging after an 18 hour shift. They were collectively referred to as Semi-Autonomous Mining Drones, or SAMDs, and they were numbered 001 to 025. And they were a serious pain in Sam’s ass. 

The major part of Sam’s job was to keep the drones, both the larger controlled ones and these smaller self directed ones, operational via routine maintenance and as needed repairs. For the larger versions this was straightforward and relatively easy, even enjoyable for him at times. But the smaller versions frequently broke and malfunctioned in new and frustrating ways and it seemed to be getting more frequent all the time. Most of the time all he had to do was wipe the memory and re-install the operating system, but sometimes he had to open them up and replace components or entire boards. It was time consuming and difficult and he hated it. 

Today the berth for SAMD-023 was empty. Sam sighed as he took out his pad and brought up the SAMD control suite and navigated to 023’s panel. He hoped he wasn't going to find out the drone had gotten stuck out on the surface; that would require a dangerous expedition that would take hours and leave him exhausted and filthy. That never happened with the big drones, he bemoaned. But the info screen showed him that 023 checked through the airlock at the end of the shift with all other 24 drones as expected. So where was it? 

He walked over to the airlock and looked through a grimy window to confirm it just didn't get stuck in between the two doors. Sam once spent a day searching mining pits in the poorly fitting exosuit just searching for a drone that was sitting in the airlock. But it was empty this time. 

He turned around and scanned the garage. It wasn't a large space but there were cabinets, tool boxes, and spare parts strewn around, enough assorted detritus from repair projects over the years to hide a small drone. He poked around and checked under the workbenches but there was no sign of the errant drone. Sam stood in the centre of the room and surveyed it while scratching his head. “Where the hell did you go, you little shit?”

Then he heard a fainting scratching sound coming from one side. Triangulating the sound by swiveling his head back and forth, he moved slowly towards a bench that was adjacent to a cabinet along the wall. He had checked under the bench and in the cabinet (how the hell the drones ever managed to get into the cabinets and close the door behind themselves he never could quite figure out) but he had neglected to check the gap between the bench legs and the cabinet that the workbench's surface overhang necessitated. Sam got down on his hands and knees again and saw that, sure enough, 023 was in the tight gap trying to do something at the back against the wall. 

“Come here you piece of crap,” he muttered as he reached his arm in and tried to gently grab one of the six legs. They were pretty sturdy for navigating the rough terrain of the asteroid’s surface, searching crevices and cracks for deposits of ores that the larger dumb drones might have missed, but Sam knew from experience that it didn't take much pressure to bend them enough to require lengthy repair or replace session at the workbench. He hated these things; they were nothing but trouble.

He couldn't quite reach so he laid flat on his stomach and angled his shoulder to push a few more inches in. His fingers brushed against one flailing metal appendage so he strained his shoulder into the gap and stretched his fingers as much as he could. “There!” he exclaimed as he got a grip on the leg and started to pull on it. “Come on now, looks like someone needs a re-image…”

As Sam got to his knees and had almost got the scrambling drone out, he felt a lancing pain on his arm just above his wrist. He screamed and whipped the drone out and violently threw it into the centre of the room, then he clutched his fiercely throbbing arm to his chest. Cursing he inspected the damage and saw a cut in his lower forearm about 6 cm long and deep enough to cause a flap of his skin to be loose. The mining laser the drone used to cut him had cauterized most of the wound and the cut was almost parallel to his arm so that it luckily avoided any major arteries or the bone, but there was still a lot of blood and considerable pain. Nothing life threatening, as far as Sam could tell, but it hurt like a son of a bitch. 

He felt his temper flaring to uncontrollable heights and his eyes locked on to the offending drone as it was righting itself on the floor and trying to flee with one leg wrenched in a non-functional angle. Sam marched over to it before it could crawl under yet another bench yelling, “YOU LITTLE SHIT!” He kicked the drone hard with his steel toed boot away from cover and it went flying through the air until it struck the airlock door with a clang and the sound of snapping metal. It skittered to a stop on the open floor again and valiantly tried to escape on only three working legs but Sam was right on top of it in an instant, stomping with his heavy boot this time instead of kicking. “I HATE YOU! I HATE THIS PLACE!” he scream, every word punctuated by a stomp that caused more pieces to bend and break each time. 

He stopped. His leg was sore from the unfamiliar strenuous activity and his arm throbbed from the injury and he felt a little nauseous, either from the loss of blood or the pain or both. The remains of 023 twitched at his feet and it was apparent it would not be going anywhere else. Muttering that he would clean this mess up later, Sam turned and marched out the garage door to the corridor cradling his injured arm.

He paid no attention to the 24 optical sensors that followed his progress.


“OK, I think we’re clear. Warping.”

Sam wasn’t sure if the heaving in his stomach was caused by the aftercare drugs he was on or the after effects of the stargate travel. He clutched his barf bag and tried to think about anything else but his stomach.

“How you doing back there?” the captain of the shuttle, a gangly youth that went by the name of Gore Vodden, asked over his shoulder.

“I’ll live,” Sam replied.

The pilot laughed. “I get it! Because the cancer’s gone, right? Yeah, you’ll live now, freaking nanos set you straight. You feel like shit now but once your body cleans out the sludge you’ll feel good as new.”

Sam had to agree; he felt sick to his stomach and weak as a newborn, but the near constant aching pain all over his body and in his bones was gone. For the first time he felt hopeful for a future despite missing his wife and kids like crazy already. Trying to take his mind off that train of thought, he asked Gore, “You said we were clear back there. Clear of what?”

“Oh the usual,” Gore responded casually, “sometimes Sanshas, sometimes capsuleers, sometimes Ammatar border patrols.”

“Wait, ‘Ammatar border patrols’? I don’t understand, we’re not in Federation space anymore?”

“No sir! Derelik region.” 

“I don’t understand, I thought the outpost I am supposed to manage was in our space.”

Gore chuckled as he flipped some switches and allowed the ship to drop out of warp near another stargate. “You assumed it was in the Federation, mate, but did you ever confirm? Just a sec.” He activated the shuttle’s engines and maneuvered it towards the gate. “Hold on.” Sam felt his stomach drop as the stargate generated a wormhole to suck the ship through. Seconds later his stomach returned to him in a upset state again as they reappeared in space in a new system. Gore punched some keys and the ship turned on its axis and accelerated into another stomach tossing warp, then he turned his seat around and addressed his passenger straight on.

“Look, I know you’re confused but all you need to know is that you keep your head down out here. We’ve got several installations like this around Derelik and none of them have had any trouble with the locals. I don’t know for sure but I figure our bosses have agreements in place behind the scenes. Whatever, if there are any problems you just put your hands up and ask to speak with the nearest Federation consulate. Got it?”

Sam could only nod.

“Alright, as you know your job is to keep the lights on and drones running. Every month a transport will show up and pick up the ores the drones have mined, your reports, and any mails to be forwarded home to your family. It will drop off a supply package of fresh food, any parts you requested last month that you need for the drones, and any mails from home. Probably some latest holos too if the runner pilot is a decent human being.

“Now sometimes the runner doesn't get through or gets delayed or whatever. Don’t panic, the station has stores of rations that will last you several months so you won’t starve and we won’t forget you’re out here. Just keep things running and find yourself a hobby because you’re going to get bored out here fast. The computers have a few thousand holos but you’ll find they run out sooner than you think. So, yeah, find a hobby. Paint, draw, build models, whatever. The station’s recreation area has all that kind of stuff in storage from when it was crewed by a few hundred people so feel free to make use of it.

“Speaking of making use of it, don’t slack on taking your medicine! You’re all alone out here and the auto-doc in the infirmary is good but not that good. Follow your doctor’s instructions, stay healthy, take your medicine. If the auto-doc prescribes some pills, you swallow them, got it?” He waited until Sam nodded. “Good, there was one guy who thought he knew better and almost died from an infection.”

The ship started to drop out of warp and a vaguely spherical asteroid loomed on the screen as Gore turned back to the controls. “We’ll be docked in five minutes. Got any questions?”


Sam hated going into the interior of the outpost.

Even though the accommodations were more spacious on the executive level and, as the only person still here, he had his pick of the rooms, he preferred his smaller room on the lower level that was closer to the exterior because some of the corridors between his room and the garages and the machine shop actually had external windows and starlight or the occasional sunlight augmented the artificial lighting and made him feel less trapped. 

The only reasons he needed to go into the interior was if there was a problem with the station’s fusion reactor (which never happened), or he needed to get some more food from the main freezer in the main cafeteria (which was rare), or a trip to the infirmary was required (which happened more often than he preferred).

Since there was no one living or working in the interior, the thermostats were turned way down and the lighting was set to dim and only came on when motion sensors detected something. As Sam made his way to the infirmary he was dripping blood every few steps from the wound on his arm which was starting to really hurt now that the adrenaline from his rage was wearing off. 

The infirmary door didn't automatically open when he approached unlike almost all other doors on the station as there was a manual control to ensure no infectious agents were released unintentionally into the general air ventilation. In the past Sam considered hot wiring the door and installing a motion sensor to save himself the three seconds it took to hit the door open command on the keypad and then the confirmation button but there always seemed something more important to do. Right now he was wishing he taken the time as his arm hurt like hell.

The door hissed open and the lights sprung to life as he stumbled in. Fortunately the auto-doc station didn’t require a lengthy boot up time (“Another Quality Product by CreoDron”) and as he laid down on the bed it wasted no time getting to the point. “What is the nature of the injury?” it inquired.

“Arm, cut, bleeding,” Sam replied tersely. He knew the voice recognition program of the machine would only clue into certain terms in sentences so you could save some time by only feeding it the terms it needed to get started.

“It appears you have a serious laceration on your right arm, is this correct?”


“Have you had any treatment for the laceration on your right arm already?”


“I am about to provide medical treatment for the laceration on your right arm, is that acceptable?”

“Yes, Yes! Get on with it already!”

“Please hold still while I provide medical treatment to your right arm for a laceration.” If Sam had been feeling slightly less pain, he would have punched the thing right in the control pad.

Two restraints popped out of the side of the machine and held his army firmly above and below the bleeding cut, and then another arm with various instruments came around from the other side and reached over Sam to start cleaning the wound and binding it up. The process only took about five minutes and ended with a shot of painkillers that immediately started to take the edge off the worst of the pain.

“There! I am all done providing treatment for the laceration on your right arm. Is there any other medical issues I can help you with at this time?”

“No, I’m good,” he replied as he sat up and felt his head starting to get fuzzy from the drugs.

“Excellent. I am sending a prescription to your pad for antibiotics for you to start tomorrow to prevent any complications from infection. I didn't detect any but it is best to be safe. Have a good day!”

Sam trudged to the door as the auto-doc went back into hibernation mode and he gave his head a shake as he keyed the door open. It only took two tries and then he was able to stumble into the corridor while yawning. “I need a nap,” he moaned. The infirmary door closed behind him and he found himself in a pitch black corridor.

“What the hell?”


“OK, I’m clear of the docking ring. You’re on you own now, Sam. Good Luck!”

“Fly safe,” Sam responded, copying what he remembered hearing the station docking control say when they set out in the shuttle to come to this outpost. It must have been the right thing because Gore smiled and he gave a salute to Sam before disconnecting. 

He sat back in the control room chair and looked around. There was consoles for at least seven people and an overview holo table at the back where a few more could keep an eye on things when the station was fully operational. But right now there was just Sam. 

He had never felt so alone. He missed his wife and kids terribly and vowed to write to them every day even though his messages would only be picked up every month or less by the transport that came for the minerals. He missed his friends like Gerry even if he was a dumbass. He missed his old life.

But on the other hand, without the nano therapy treatments the company paid for he would have been on his death bed right now as the cancer consumed his body from the inside. Ten years of loneliness and boredom in exchange for the rest of his life seemed like a good deal when was all said and done.

“After all,” he said out loud to no one with a smile on his face, “I’m living on borrowed time now.”


Sam’s drug addled mind took a few seconds to puzzle out why he was still standing in darkness. He fumbled his pad out of his pocket and used its glow to confirm that he had not suddenly gone blind. He could see the wall on either side and the horizontal edge on the wall where the concealed lighting would normally shine from when the door opened but right now it was dark. Occasionally a section of lighting would expire and require changing but Sam had never heard of an entire corridor’s lighting blowing at once on both sides. 

“Something must have happened to the main fuse for this section,” he thought to himself and he considered trying to bring up the station’s electrical schematics to find out where this corridor’s sub station was located, but the drugs in his system and throbbing in his arm convinced him this was something that could wait until later. 

Using the light from his pad he made his way down the hall. The dark seemed to make the cold feel colder and he felt a chill race up his spine. He didn't like being in the enclosed confines of the interior of the station at the best of times and the oppressive dark only made his anxiety worse. 

As he made his way around a curve in the corridor he caught a glimpse of his pad’s glow being reflected off something on the floor. He slowed his advanced as the light reached out and illuminated more and then stopped as his heart pounded in his chest and the cloudiness of the drugs was washed away on a new wave of adrenaline.

There in the middle of the hall was 11 of the small Semi-Autonomous Mining Drones, all of them facing their sensor arrays towards Sam, sitting perfectly still. Out of the corner of his eye he saw two more on the wall, using their pincer limbs to grasp on to the polymer surface, and between them he could see the melted edges of a hole. His eyes darted over to the other side of the corridor to see a matching hole there and at this angle he could see damage electronics and it was no longer a mystery to Sam why the lights had failed in this part of the outpost.

Intellectually he knew there had to be a rational reason for the drones’ actions, like maybe a broken AI subroutine that had propagated to other drones when they shared the shift’s neural networks, or even a virus that had come in on the software updates from the last supply ship. But instinctively Sam knew it was time to run.

He turned and nearly tripped over his own feet, his boots feeling extra heavy and clumsy. He heard the skittering of many mechanical legs start to move behind him and his heart rate spiked as pure terror raced through him. He pounded down the hall, the glow from his pad in his hand throwing frantic shadows on the walls in front of him as he pumped his arms. He saw the door to the infirmary come out of the gloom ahead of him and he slowed enough to take a quick look behind. The sight of the drones racing after him convinced Sam to run even harder. 

Sam grunted as he slammed into the door and accidentally dropped his pad which landed face down and plunged him into complete darkness. “NO!” he screamed as he scrambled on his hands and knees searching for the dropped tool. His fingers brushed it and he grabbed it and in the glow he could see the drones still skittering towards him at full speed and only about 10 meters away. He lunged to his feet and pounded his fist on the keypad for the door and it lit up so he could stab at the Open command. The interface seemed to take forever to refresh with the confirmation command but it finally displayed and he frantically stabbed at it too. 

The door started to slide open and Sam’s relief was cut short as he felt something pull on his pant leg. He spun through the door, kicking with his heavy boots at the floor that seemed to writhe with mechanical bodies. The panic gave his kicks extra power and he felt a couple satisfying thumps as his boots connected and sent a couple drones flying. He backed into the infirmary and tried to hit the emergency door close command on the inside keypad but another drone leaped up and landed on his leg and bit its claws into his flesh. Sam screamed and took a step back to keep from losing his balance but now he was too far away to hit the emergency close button. He dropped his pad as the lights of the infirmary allowed him to see and tried to peel the drone on his leg off as its laser started to bite into his work overalls while he reached out with his other hand to order the door closed.

Another drone launched itself at him and this time it hit him square in the chest. He lost his balance and fell backwards and started flailing at the drone on his chest. He screamed at the top of his lungs as the laser of the one on his leg burned through his clothes and sliced into his flesh. Another drone latched on to his uninjured left arm and pinched hard as its laser ripped through the exposed back of his hand, and the drone on his chest had maneuvered high enough to aim its laser at his face.

Not like this, Sam thought. Not like this.


Internal Memo:
Reports from the field indicate the Reduced AI Architecture project has proven untenable. Recommend immediate termination.
J. Golipe
VP R&D Operations


  1. Great stuff Kirith, well deserving of the Grand Prize!

  2. deleted my comment, but good story


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