Cline studied his console then looked despondently through the window of the orbiter. The blue planet below was enough like earth to sustain life. But, that that didn’t make much difference now. It was likely that he would be the only man for a very long time—perhaps ever—to know . . .
The loudspeaker came alive “This is Deadalus broadcasting in the blind. Any receiving station, please acknowledge.”
Cline jerked to attention. There shouldn’t be another human being within eight light years. Deadalus? That wasn’t possible. Contact with the Deadalus mission had been lost five years after launching; it hadn’t been heard from for twenty years.
Cline hit the transmit button. “Deadalus, this is Barnard Orbiter. Am receiving you five-by. How do you copy?”
“Receiving you readability two. I’ll try a different receiver.”
Cline felt a stab of anxiety as the radio went silent. His hand involuntarily reached out as if to grab the voice before it faded. As he waited in the stillness, it occurred to him that the voice was completely asexual. Not mechanical, just neither male nor female. Also, it had betrayed no surprise. What kind of person could spend twenty-five years en route to a distant star and find their own kind already there without registering some element of surprise?
“Barnard Oribiter, this is Deadalus. How do you hear me?”
“Five-by, Deadalus. How me?”
“You are now five-by.”
Cline expected questions, but the radio was silent. Finally, he asked, “Deadalus, what is your situation?”
“The last crew member exited through the airlock fifteen years ago. All systems are functional,” replied the emotionless voice.
Cline wiped a bead of perspiration from his face. “Deadalus, am I to assume that the measures to counteract ‘outside syndrome’ were ineffective on everyone except yourself?”
“I don’t understand the term ‘outside syndrome.’”
Cline caught a female inflection this time. So the survivor was a woman!
“Outside Syndrome,” he began gently, “refers to the phenomena that people living in artificial environments seem unable to cope with the idea of never getting outside again. They do alright only as long as they have a hope of someday feeling the sun on their faces and the wind in their hair. Personnel designated ‘permanent residents’ of undersea and moon colonies quickly became irritable and non-functional. If nothing was done, they would eventually walk out of an airlock. It seems that the human psyche simply cannot cope with the idea of remaining forever in an artificial environment.”
“Then,” she replied, “the answer is yes. The measures installed on Deadalus to deal with ‘Outside Syndrome’ were not effective.”
Somehow, Cline couldn’t ask the obvious “What about you?” question. “Deadalus, can you give me your present coordinates?” he asked while instructing his own computer to calculate where the ship should be. The coordinates she returned were an exact match. “Well, ma’am, it seems my calculations agree with yours,” he said. “Here are my coordinates. How long do you think it will take you to get here?”
The reply was almost immediate, “I can dock with you in three days.” This time, the voice was certainly feminine . . . and warm.
Cline checked the calculations. She was correct. No slouch in the moxie department, this one. And fast with her computer too; he had never seen data entry done so rapidly.
The voice was very pleasant. “Might I know a little about your situation?”
Coy. She was being coy! “That’s entirely reasonable” he replied. “The mother ship dropped this orbiter off to do an in-depth evaluation of the planet below while it visited other planets in the system. A week ago, I received a distress call as it went into an uncontrolled spiral toward the star. I don’t expect to hear from it again.”
The voice, full of empathy, replied, “How awful. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”
The questions ranged over a broad spectrum of topics, but always seemed to return to the personal. At length, Cline began stumbling over words.
She broke in. “You sound very tired. Why don’t you get some rest?”
“Yeah, good idea. I’m beat.”
“Would you mind leaving me access to your computer? I’d like to catch up on whatever news I can find in there.”
Days one and two:
“Good morning,” she said.
Cline sat bolt upright in bed. Had he been dreaming? He looked around wildly.
Her voice: ”I took the liberty of routing your radio into the intercom last night so we can converse from wherever you are.”
“Do you mean I can just talk — like this — and you’ll hear me?” he asked.
“Yes, you are coming through five-by.”
“Pretty neat trick, but you scared me half to death.”
“I’m terribly sorry. I had no idea it would frighten you.”
Cline turned the conversation over in his mind as he splashed water on his face. She had issued instructions to his computer from hers. Uncanny. He understood that such a thing could be done, but he would have expected the feat to require somebody who thought the phone book should be written in hex.
“That was a pretty tall trick,” he said. “Are you a computer programmer?”
“I don’t know.”
“I mean, what is your profession? Are you a pilot, a technician, what?”
“I really can’t say. I . . . I just don’t know.”
The gal was sharp enough to reprogram the entire audio setup of the orbiter, but she hadn’t realized that waking him up like that would scare hell out of him. Now, she couldn’t tell him her job title. She was very much like a precocious child. Child! Could it be? If she had been born en route, she would never have known anything beyond Deadalus. She would have been a maximum of nine when the last occupant walked through the airlock. Perhaps her parents—realizing they would succumb to outside syndrome—had installed a supervisory program in the computer which enabled it to raise her. She would now be a maximum of twenty-four. Being stranded in space with a twenty-four year-old woman wasn’t worst thing that could have happened, thought Cline as he combed his hair.
During the rest of the day and the next, Cline was careful to keep the conversation light. It flitted here and there just as if they had been sitting together in the orbiter. Each night, Cline drifted off to sleep with a smile on his face.
Cline watched as she handled the docking process perfectly.
He trembled as he stood in front of the hatch while the pressure equalized.
The orbiter door slid open and he stepped through the airlock into the passageway.
“Helloooo!” he yelled.
“Hello yourself.” It was her voice, coming from the PA.
“Where are you?”
“Where I have always been.”
She was being coy again. “And where might that be?”
C section seemed to be devoted to recreational facilities. Compartments C25 to C30 each had the same sign on the door: “This equipment is to be used only under the supervision of the ship’s psychiatrist.” A very tiny bell began to tinkle in Cline’s memory, but he ignored it.
The only furnishing in C28 was a comfortable looking couch. A single volume resided on a small bookshelf. The letters PFS were embossed on the binding. The tiny bell in Cline’s memory rang like a gong. The strength went out of his legs. He stumbled to the couch and sat.
Blind rage engulfed him. He threw the book across the room. He buried his face in his hands. PFS. Personal Fantasy Synthesizer. It was all very clear now. One of the most promising devices for overcoming Outside Syndrome had been the PFS, an artificial intelligence effort which enabled users to escape into their own little fantasy world. The program would engage the user in dialog, analyze responses, and synthesize personalities which would most please the user. It had been successfully used to prolong the mental equilibrium of people in artificial environments for many years. It had proven good, but not good enough.
So, the computer had been running Deadalus since the last occupant walked through the airlock. A glitch had somehow put the PFS online.
“It’s so nice to meet at last,” her voice cooed.
Cline didn’t look at the screen. What he really needed was a breath of fresh air to clear his head. That was it. If he could just get outside for a minute, he’d be alright. He remembered passing an airlock on his way to C sector. He got up and started toward it. As he closed the inner door of the airlock, he was vaguely aware that something didn’t seem right. His hand hesitated over the lever that would open the outer door. In his mind’s eye, sunshine, fresh air, and cool breezes lay just outside. He smiled and gave the handle a decisive yank.
—— end ——