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Pandora's Box

by K Griffin © 2000


He’d be home for Christmas. For the first time in a decade, he would be on earth during the annual festival. The company had originated on Earth but had long ago lost touch with its roots. It claimed an intergalactic base these days and found it unfashionable to recognise anything terran. “Bean counters” muttered Spud in distaste. The real reason they recognised no customs, was that it was cheaper to ignore anything that might cost them money. No leave was ever granted and certainly no paid leave, if it conflicted with profit. This year though, he’d fooled them all. He’d checked the company regulations and knew that if he could step foot on terran soil by Christmas day, then they would not only have to give him the holiday, but they’d have to pay him a holiday bonus. So few pilots were terran nationals that the old regulation had been forgotten and was no longer taken into account in the flight rosters. He’d received a few strange looks when he’d volunteered for this flight. He was better known for his long-haul runs to the wild outer clusters. The pomp and ceremony associated with a visit to the company headquarters was not his usual style.

He smiled to himself as he climbed into the pilot’s station and began the monotonous pre-flight checks.  The system monitor had already completed them, but he was convinced that one day he would find something that the automatics had missed.  Red blinking lights surrounded him on all sides.  He didn’t really need to be here yet, but this trip he was carrying passengers.  He hated playing captain and chatting to passengers, so he’d excused himself on the pretext that work called.

The passenger manifest consisted of two names:-
ID721-1962-XX Dargell, Helios, Sinta  
ID721-9872-ZZ Dargell, Helios, Sam

It was unusual to see ZZ’s listed as passengers.  Usually they simply entered stasis and travelled cargo.  In fact, he’d never seen a ZZ quite like this Sam Helios.  Full ID numbers always declared the XX for female, XY for male and ZZ for non-organic.    Most planets made sure that there could be no mistake between its organic population and its non-organic population.  Not only did they never give a ZZ a family name, but they also tended to make them expressionless and emotionless – machine-like in their attitude and appearance.  These were more than old habits that had carried over from the android wars.  For some planets, they were actual conditions in the treaty that granted them full membership of Federation.

Planet Dargell was either not a member or was a founding member and since he’d never heard of it, he presumed it was not a member.  He hated to rely on presumption though, and once he’d finished the self-imposed chore of the pre-flight checks, he called up the planet database to discover more about Planet Dargell.

The entries in the database only deepened his curiosity.

The answer to his query was simply – “You have insufficient security to view these entries – unable to complete your request”.  Now that was another first.  He’d heard rumours of prison planets in the asteroid belts that were restricted and had once had a query against a population database rejected for lack of security, but he’d never seen an entire planet where no information at all was available to a pilot.  As far as he’d been told in every training course he’d ever undertaken, pilots were always able to obtain the co-ordinates and flight control centre information for any planet.

He gave a mental shrug and punched the button to submit both his passenger and cargo manifests to flight control then leaned back to relax until his launch window was allocated.  Pilots didn’t last long with the company if they got too curious about their cargo.  The Company had branch offices in most planets of Federation these days.  Gone were the old cowboy days when he’d had to talk his way on and off every planet he visited.  He missed those days when the risks and rewards had been greater, but he’d succumbed to the lure of a pension scheme and nowadays mostly toed the company line,

He closed his eyes for a moment as the old military habit of grabbing sleep when you could, kicked in.  A tap on his shoulder brought him back to reality.  Again the old military habits kicked in and he snapped immediately awake.  He looked over his shoulder to see Sam Helios standing there with an apologetic expression on his face.   “Umm…mind if I keep you company for a while?  The Lady Sinta is new to this travelling concept and it embarrasses her for me to see her feeling nervous”.

Spud pictured the lady he’d left in the lounge and couldn’t quite manage to add nervous to the image.  She’d looked cool as a cucumber to him and very beautiful.  He looked up at the android and asked, “Why should she be embarrassed in front of you?” The suggestion puzzled him since, to most people, androids didn’t matter.

Sam simply gave an enigmatic smile and said “Dargell is a little different to most of the planets you’ve come across.”

Well now he had another bit of information to file away in his list of anomalies.  He’d never seen a ZZ smile before.  Emotions were simply never part of their program.  He waved vaguely at the spare station beside him and nodded.  Co-pilot seats were another redundancy that had not yet been removed.  Pilots had insisted that they be retained for emergencies, but no co-pilot was ever rostered to the short flights.  Sam settled onto the couch and snapped on the harness.  Even as Spud tried to frame the appropriate questions in his mind, Sam spoke, “You do realise that you have one piece of information that others usually lack.  Dargell ID’s are usually presented in compact form, without the gender tags at the end.  It’s only travel regulations that require the full ID.”

Spud muttered an abashed response, “I was that obvious, huh?”  He turned and carefully examined this Sam, before asking, “Are there that few androids on Dargell, that it doesn’t matter?”

Sam shook his head and answered, “No, that few humanoids.”

Now that stopped Spud in his tracks.  “The ratios don’t apply on Dargell?” he asked in astonishment, since every member of the Galactic Federation was bound by the 1:1 ratio rules; the number of fully independent or quasi-intelligent androids could not exceed the total number of humanoids on a planet.

“The ratios are wrong.  If the time is right, we will present our demands when we reach Earth,” responded Sam in a cool, calm voice.   Spud blinked and said nothing.  There really was nothing to say in response to such a comment.  “Demands?” he thought, but then remembered the strange database entries.

Before he could collect his thoughts enough to query this android further, Sam spoke again, saying, “Wait for space time, Captain.  By then the Lady Sinta will have collected herself enough to add her comments and I’m sure that Flight Control will re-allocate your window if you don’t respond soon.”   It was only then that Spud noticed the flashing launch light had turned green.   He responded and completed the launch procedures.  He knew the automatic announcements would coach his lady passenger slowly through the strapping in procedure and the annoyingly composed android at his side needed no assistance, so he simply locked down, and watched as the ship rolled onto the flight deck and was raised into its sling launch.  There was one last formality that gave pilots the illusion that they were in charge.  Launch could not take place until he provided the launch code.  He punched in the numbers and with a surge that pleasantly flattened him into the contour couch, they were on their way to Earth.

As soon as the launch was complete and they’d reached escape point, the burners kicked in and swung the angle of their trajectory onto the correct path.  The cabin lights blinked then changed to day zone and Spud could no longer find any excuse to linger at the controls.  Everything was under control and his presence should not be required, save for the daily log entries, until they reached Earth zone. He looked across at Sam and found to his surprise that the android was staring at the only view window in the cabin.  He seemed entranced with the starscape.  Spud gave a mental shrug, stood and made his way quietly back to the passenger cabin.

Spud felt obliged to straighten his uniform and try to look the part of captain, before again meeting the Lady Sinta.  His grand entrance however was wasted as she too was staring at the only view window in the cabin.  A smile seemed to dance across her lips.  He thought for a moment that she was talking to someone.  He stood and watched her.  She was beautiful, silhouetted in the window; a slim, elegant lady who seemed to glow with vibrant energy yet appeared so fragile and delicate at the same time.  Without even realising, his hand reached out towards her soft flowing hair.  It wasn’t her hair that he was trying to touch though, it was the shimmering glow that seemed to surround her.  A soft voice seemed to break the spell, “You’re from earth,” she said.

He looked up and nodded.  He realised that Sam had followed him when a voice behind him said, “Lady Sinta, he is curious about the purpose of our trip.”

The Lady laughed and said, “Of course he is curious.  No doubt you’ve dropped enough hints to totally confuse him.”  She waved Spud towards the couches and with a smile said, “Since you’re from earth, then you probably already know most of the story; the lost colonists; their appearance at the height of the Galactic War crisis; the great hope of the humanists until the colonists again disappeared.”

“Dargell was the home of the colonists.  Although Dargell did not support the attempts to ban intelligent androids, the time was not right to force change.  We consented to their compromise and helped its implementation, but the Federation Rules do not bind Dargell.  We are the heart of the Federation, but not part of it.  We send an envoy each decade, on the anniversary of the signing to ensure that the treaty is still honoured.  A representative from both our android and humanoid population must be present for the treaty to be valid,” she explained.

Sam appeared uninterested in the explanations being offered.  He was again staring out the view window at the slowly shifting star scape.  A strange impulse came over Spud, urging him to help this softly spoken lady.  He was convinced that behind the calm words was the real story of domination of the human population.  The stories of this childhood came back to haunt him; stories where the metal man stole the children from their beds in the night; stories where the creations of man turned homicidal and murdered their creators.  He leaned toward the lady and whispered, “You do not need to support this treaty.  The wars are long gone and the Federation would help you find freedom.”

A peal of laughter greeted his offer.  Embarrassed by her reaction, he listened with dismay as she turned to Sam and in between her smothered laughing, managed to say, “Help me Sam.  I’ve explained it badly.  Our dear Captain thinks that you are my Master.”

Sam sighed and his shoulders seemed to physically droop.  He spoke sadly to the Lady, “If he leaps to that conclusion, then I doubt enough has changed.  It will not be easy to remove the ratio quotas.”  He then turned to Spud and said in more formal tones, “The Lady Sinta is High Priestess of the Silver Temples, Captain.  Many believe that one day she will be our next Silver Lady.  The Book of Knowledge states that none may reach that level of purity and power until they have entered the Darkness and returned.”  Sam gestured vaguely at the view window as he continued, “and she has now entered the Darkness.”

Spud interrupted sharply, “So once again we have religion as the opiate of the masses.  You’ve conditioned your humans with religion and prophecies, so that your grip on the planet is not loosened.  It must gall you that you need to keep some token humans around to produce for the anniversary treaty signing.”

This time is was Sinta that interrupted, saying, “This is not religion, Captain.  Perhaps it is reverence, but there is no blind faith in our studies.  We chose a different path.  We did not dissect life to find its essence; we embraced it and slowly its truths were revealed to us.  What I did not know until now is that the pulse of power is not confined to Dargell.  How could I know or believe that it could exist even here, in the barren vacuum of space?”  She turned to Sam and in an excited voice continued, “and here it is pure silver.  The essence of each planet and star seems to be distilled in the minute glowing pinpoints of light.  I can touch it all.  We did not need the ship.”

Sam nodded slowly as he said, “Yes, I suspected that it would be so, but you know that I cannot see it.”

Spud stepped back, eyeing them both suspiciously, then asked, “What is this power?”

Sinta laughed again.  It was an infectious, happy laugh and matched her movements perfectly as she almost danced to her feet.  Without a word, she moved towards him and reached out.  Her fingers lightly brushed his temple.  Even that glancing touch burned an imprint deep inside him and a weight seemed to lift from his very soul.  Years of anger and disappointment and pain were sloughed away in that single touch.  “Your essence is strong,” she said, “but very tangled.  You belong on Dargell.”

Spud half-wondered what drug she’d managed to slip him.  This was a strange and unfamiliar sensation that filled him.  It took him a few moments to identify the word for the feeling.  He felt happy.

“I belong on Dargell?” he asked.

“Yes,” she replied.  “You are strong and you are open to the rainbows of light that is life.  Perhaps your years in deep space have conditioned you, much like our early years in the temple practicing meditation and concentration drills.  You seek but you do not know what you seek.  Why else do you so often run from your world and its reality?” she finished softly.  She could see Spud’s mounting confusion and seemed to want to make amends for creating such inner turmoil because she added, “Go and celebrate your victory and your Christmas, Captain, but when it is finished, you should come home with us.”

Spud might have smiled and simply nodded to humour her, but a thought had suddenly dawned on him.  He turned to Sam and stared at him carefully.  He saw a man; a man who was in reality an incredibly advanced android; self-aware, independent and intelligent.  He blinked to clear his thoughts and slowly said, “She said that earth was afraid.”

 “Yes,” said Sam.

 “I thought they were afraid of you; of a super population of advanced androids,” said Spud.

“No,” said Sam.  His last words were barely audible as he again turned to stare at the star scape, “They tried to close the lid on Pandora’s Box, but one day Dargell will lose patience.”

Copyright © 2005 Elusive Dreams Mud. All rights reserved.
For comments or questions, email Klah.
Last updated: May 25, 2005.