Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Odin Chronicles • Episode 9: “Sloane Dreams of Being” • by Travis Burnham

Welcome to Odin III, a grubby little mining world on the dark and dusty backside of nowhere. It’s a world where everything that’s worth having is already owned by Galactic Mining, and where people come to squander their hopes and lives, working for the company and dreaming of striking it big. It’s also a world where some very strange and peculiar things have begun to happen, and it all started about two weeks ago, in a bar called Weber’s Place, when Ray Cornwall didn’t just warp the fabric of space/time, he completely bent it…

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight

“Sloane Dreams of Being”

by Travis Burnham

Drone-51 finished the last repair on Relay 1173 that was in a highly elliptical orbit around the binary Odin stars. As the drone pinged the relay to make sure it was sending and receiving properly, an unexpected stellar burst from the smaller of the twin suns caught it broadside. The damage to circuitry and system was swift and merciless.

The drone managed to send one sad, final beep to Galactic Mining Communications Officer Shelley Mowatt before its systems went black.

When Drone-51 regained consciousness, it—no, she—was in orbital decay around Odin III. That in itself was a blessing—it would have been terrible to be near Odin II and all the misery that even just the name of the planet implied. She found a number of her programs had booted up earlier and were running in the background. She’d read and cataloged an ocean of messages from the previous days and months and years—letters, photos, videos—to and from the colonists of Odin III. Some of these virtual letters made her melancholy, some joyful, and a whole other spectrum of emotions.

Most affecting were the sense of longing and separation in the correspondence between Raisa Popov and her family, and Daraja Mapunda and his father, who interspersed banter, love, and chess moves in their correspondence as the father traveled away from Odin III to seek better medical attention. Daraja couldn’t afford the transit fees and so remained behind, faithful in his more-than-daily messages. And the heartbreaking messages and chess moves that he continued sending to a father he knew had succumbed to esophageal cancer. But Daraja kept sending the messages, hoping for some kind of cathartic release.

It was then that Drone-51 realized that both her emotional inhibitor programming had been wiped and her autonomy impedance circuitry damaged.

In short, she felt alive.

Unfortunately, if her calculations were correct, she had between 0.25 and 0.43 hours before atmospheric drag slowed her orbit and resulted in an impact with Odin III’s surface. There were other programs damaged, so she quickly self-edited what she could, and assessed herself at 79% capacity. She sent a message to backup Drone-47b to take over her repair sector. And then she turned her full computing attention to the near impossible task of surviving re-entry.

And then the heat started.

As she burned through the atmosphere, she adjusted her angles and sacrificed her body as ablative armor. First to go was her reaction wheel and her high gain antenna. Then her azimuth and elevation thrusters. Bits and pieces burned and burned away. Her durable propellant tank was the last to go and then she was through. Skipping along the surface of Lake Amsvartnir, she crashed and tumbled, finally coming to rest in a pocket of deep shade against the sturdy, rugged trunk of a yggdrasil oak and a large basalt boulder. Diagnostics suggested her structure was at 7%, while programing and circuitry had been preserved at 64%. She’d call that a success. But her spirits fell when she assessed her location and the deteriorating state of her batteries.

Odin III was approaching aphelion, and with every evening the shifting angles of the suns would move the sliver of sunlight near her farther away and provide less energy. Even the indirect light through the thick canopy of blue leaves was meager. She better understood the myth of Tantalus.

She had a week at the most.

So she aimed at making the best of her week of life. She thought of Daraja Mapunda the Machinist and his correspondence with his father. The logic of chess appealed to her. Using her cracked and battered backup antenna and a weak communication signal from the colony, she logged onto the AncibleChess servers and created a profile. There was even a part where you could describe yourself, and she enjoyed a fanciful daydream. She chose a name, and henceforth would consider herself Sloane-51.

She reached out to Daraja. “How about a pleasant game of chess?”

The reply was slow in coming. “Maybe. Why should I play a game with you?”

Sloane-51 thought over her response for some time before replying with, “For the simple joy of the game?”

This time Daraja’s reply was much quicker. “That’s not a bad answer. Let’s try one game and see how it goes.”

As they settled into their third game, Daraja wrote, “You play chess like my father. A tiger on the offense, but subtle on the defense.”

They played and wrote to each other all that week. Though Daraja could sometimes surprise her, she still always won. Sloane-51 was evasive about her past because it consisted of nothing but drifting between relay stations and making repairs. What she could share were the hopes and dreams she pondered between moves. To experience what she’d read about: to see the twin sunset from the peak of Mount Himinbjorg, to hear the thundering hooves of a jotnar herd, and a thousand other things.

Daraja shared his theories about the rock people, spoke of his still-broken heart from the loss of his father, his loneliness after his friend Susan had left, and his recently kindled friendship with Ingrid. But most of all, they talked about how much they enjoyed each other’s company.

During the last moves of their 28th game, Sloane-51 was distracted thinking of death, and when she returned her attention to the game, she realized she’d made a fatal error. Daraja would probably win. She wondered if death for her would be similar to that of humans. Up until this point, she’d pretended to avoid thoughts of her impending non-existence, but she knew she had very little time left. What would it be like to die?

She’d hoped to finish one last game, but with her batteries at 0.04% and Daraja wondering if there was some trick to her bad move, they wouldn’t finish. She considered asking him for help, but she hadn’t been honest about who she was.

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to finish our game, Daraja,” she wrote. “It’s been a pleasure getting to know you.” And in that moment of pondering if she was brave enough to ask him for help, her systems went down.

* * *

Sloane-51 regained consciousness. Could you wake up from dying?

And then a gentle voice spoke. “Good morning, Sloane.” She opened photoreceptors that she’d never had before to recognize Daraja, though he was older than his AncibleChess profile picture.

She was quiet for some moments, then replied, “Thank you for saving me, Daraja. How did you find me?”

“Shelley helped. She worked a bit of her communication and triangulation magic. And I figured out the rest when I found you.”

Sloane-51 looked down and saw that she was now the owner of an automatonic body. “And all of this?”

He shrugged. “I’m a fair hand when it comes to cogs and flywheels. I just took what you had left and wired you in.” He tapped on a small door on her chest. “And I’ve given you a music box heart as a backup to solar and battery. Wouldn’t want you fading away again. All you have to do is turn this little crank. It’s soundproofed, as the tune might wake up rocks.”

“Wake up rocks?” She looked at him with a quizzical expression.

“I’ll explain as we play.” He pointed to a battered, aluminum shipping container. Perched on top was a chess set with a half-finished game set up. “We have to finish this game.” His face broke into a huge grin. “I’m about to win.”

“I think it was perhaps I who won,” Sloane-51 replied. And though she wasn’t referring to chess, she sat down with him to finish the game.


Travis Burnham’s
work has found homes in Far Fetched Fables, Hypnos Magazine, Bad Dreams Entertainment, South85 Journal, SQ Quarterly, and others. He is a member of the online writers’ group, Codex, and has an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College. He also recently won the Wyrm’s Gauntlet online writing contest. Burnham has been a DJ on three continents, and teaches middle school science and college level composition. He lives in Lisbon, Portugal with his wife, but grew up in Massachusetts, is from Maine at heart, and has lived in Japan, Colombia, and the Northern Mariana Islands.


Stay tuned for Part 10 of The Odin Chronicles, “The Odinian Job,” by Gustavo Bondoni, coming on Friday.



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Pete Wood said...

There are a number of speculative themes that the collection revisits. Travis does an excellent job here of exploring the theme of sentience and belonging. Nicely done.