Smears of cryogel stuck to the explorer’s eyelids, the back of his neck, his genitals. A single shower never got rid of it all, but in his rush to resume scanning for the diamond planet, Maitch Esso hadn’t taken time for the second or third he’d really need to get clean. He noticed a stray patch of gel on his left forearm; taking a greasy towel, he rubbed at the goo, gradually releasing it from his skin. Underneath, a part of his personal scrapbook came into view: a red rose with the name Achelle, his wife, and a simple diamond formed from a few crude lines. The first, he remembered, he’d paid for after their first date; she had a matching one with his name. He wondered if she had kept it, after he had left. The second he had done himself, at fourteen, poking out the shape with a needle wrapped in thread and dipped in India ink. Somehow, it had lasted as long as the professional one.
“Refocus, buddy!” Maitch stared at the flat-screen, punching up the 3-D view. Stars leaped about with the change in perspective. Nothing looked right as yet.
This time he felt sure. He could feel it more strongly than any of the previous twenty-six times. When he found the diamond planet, the first one to do so since Earthmen had been talking about, searching for and believing in this one precious object, he, Maitch Esso, would be a legend among legends. To speed his search, he had created a unique algorithm, processing centuries of myths, tall tales and observable facts, along with geology, chemistry and the astrophysics of solar energy fields. Each factor had its own alphanumeric in his formula. As a result, he was searching for a binary star system that had captured a passing white dwarf. Together, this trio would have applied pressure and heat for a millennium to cook down a nondescript carbon planet into the largest, most valuable jewel in the universe.
Cosmological analysis had yielded a catalog of points jumbled across the constellations, and Maitch had tracked them one by one. They had all proven dead ends. Next on the list of likely targets, the algorithm pointed to an area just inside the Capricornus Void. That alone comprised a massive territory, but he had programmed the trip anyway. One more stop on a long series of stops.
Now, the ship’s computer had woken him from the sleep freeze again. “How long have I been down?” Maitch said aloud.
In response, the computer flashed a chronometer on the screen. It would have read him the time, except he had turned off its damned voice a long time ago. Too irritating. The vocal circuit had developed a fault, so it dragged out certain vowels and one consonant in particular: “s.” The drifting thing sounded like a giant anaconda, hissing and sputtering away. One day, the fault would spread to the other circuits, and then he would be bunched into the fourth dimension.
Maitch stared at the clock. Thirty-eight years of freezer burn.
“Danglers,” he swore. “My whole life passing before my dreams.” Twenty-six times he had woken like this, sometimes after five years, sometimes after decades; more than fifty, once. All in all, probably five or six hundred years, give or take a few. The computer would know; none of it would matter once he found the diamond.
Back to work. The computer had divided the area into blocks one astronomical unit per side. He pushed the scanner’s viewplate across the current cube, examining every celestial body from dwarf planet on up. Maitch took on the search himself. When you’re hunting for something that doesn’t exist, like Atlantis or Lemuria, you have to drift with your intuition rather than navigate by fact and figure alone.
After days at the scanner, loneliness dragged at his mind. Maitch could make it a couple of days without hearing a human voice, especially when he had something to busy himself. Now the work had become rote. Luckily, he had saved all Achelle’s voicemail messages when she was contacting him to find out where he’d gone, to get him back, to make him feel guilty for abandoning their life together. Needing to hear his wife talk, Maitch set the computer to continue scanning before taking the speaker bot from the cupboard where it lived during his cryosleep periods.
The robot, simply a cheap, generic android with limited functionality, had a blank plastic face and rubber lips. The lips, he noticed, were cracked and crumbling from dry rot. The plastic skin had yellowed. Its eyes had been installed so they moved to add expression, but they seemed dull, blank, lifeless. The paint on the molded hair had faded, and much of it had flaked away.
Maitch touched the magnetic key to the back of its neck, and the bot jerked briefly, masticating its lips in a parody of facial exercise.
“Talk to me,” Maitch said. “Play the recordings. Start with number C-sixteen.”
“Maitch! This is your wife again,” the robot’s lips moved in crude approximation of the words. Achelle’s voice, musical, warm and soft despite her frustration, came through a speaker hidden behind the rubber flaps. “Remember me? Please call me when you get this message. Dacta has been asking about you. I think you should tell him yourself where you’re going. Old Sol knows I don’t understand.”
“I’m close this time, Darling,” Maitch said, speaking to the robot. “This is it. I’ll bring back proof, and then I’ll be famous. Book tours. Speaker’s fees. Exhibitions of stones and photographs. We’ll be rich. You’ll be famous, too. I know you’ll like that.”
“The money’s running out, Maitch.” The tape continued. “You didn’t leave enough for the bills. My job alone can’t cover them. Your clients are threatening to press lawsuits. What am I going to do?” Her throat caught in a sob, pinching off the words.
“I know. I’m sorry. I had to do it. I had to follow my dream. You always said I should follow my dream.”
“You said forever. We’d be together forever. Life’s adventure. The shop, a home, a family. That would be enough for you. What happened? Wasn’t I enough?”
“Yes, darling, I know. You were enough; you were great. I don’t know why I did it. But here I am. It will be over soon. Then I’ll come back.”
Now his heart had clotted with a thick soup of grief and loss; his mind ran through all the regrets. He’d had enough of the old words for now.
“Stop the tape,” he told the bot. “Voice circuit activate. No recording.”
The robot turned its head from side to side and pursed its lips. “Hello, Maitch.” It was Achelle’s voice, taken from snips of the recordings and stitched together into new words, new sentences.
“Hello, Darling. Come with me to the kitchen.”
The android stumped after him. Its left foot dragged; its left arm dangled, useless.
“How’s your arm?”
“It’s okay today. My foot doesn’t want to cooperate. I’m sorry I’m moving so slow.”
“I’m sorry I messed you up. If I hadn’t left that floor hatch open, you wouldn’t have stepped in it.”
“You tried to fix me.”
“But then I messed it up. I didn’t know what I was doing. I disconnected the wrong circuit and disabled your arm.”
“You did your best with what you had. The manual wasn’t clear. At least you cared enough to try.”
They made it to the kitchen at last. “Have a seat,” Maitch said. “Would you like a nanny block?”
“No, thank you. I don’t know how you can eat those things. Nanny blocks are for little kids.”
“What’s not to like? Sweet, milky, chewy. Like treacle, but with all the nutrients a man needs. I’ve always liked ‘em.”
“They’re gross.” The cracked lips approximated a rictus of disgust.
“Nanny blocks are perfect for space travel. Never spoil, never lose flavor.”
“They never had any flavor.”
Maitch ignored the remark. “Besides, they take me back to the days of my youth, good times. Simpler times. That’s important in a long voyage.”
“It didn’t have to be so long.”
“That’s the way it happened. I might have found it in the first year. But it didn’t happen that way.”
“You look tired.”
“I am. I need some jet-nap.”
“You should get some real sleep. The computer can monitor the scanning process.”
“This is too important. I can’t spare the time.”