The blackness of the sky was a burden. As Commander Jack Atkins maneuvered the Star Ship James Cameron into position he felt the heaviness of night. It was never like this on Star Trek or Star Wars – all those ancient programs that humans once watched on television. Jack laughed to himself remembering the streaking, flickering star screens flashing by in the sky in those video productions.
It wasn’t a star field of light in space.
It was dark.
The asteroid was about to bump up against the stellar excavator that Atkins commanded. “Acquire object,” he voice commanded the forward pincers.
The massive metallic arms reached out and grasped a 1,000 ton asteroid. The pocked face of the unearthly rock moved alarming near to the command station.
“Water assessment,” rang out his voice command.
A pica robot was released from a hidden window in the ‘palm’ of the giant metal pincer hands. The robot rattled down onto the surface of the asteroid and like an old fashioned “i-robot” vacuum, progressed rapidly across the face of the asteroid. It found an ‘in’ to a hidden pocket.
The bleeping response command transmitted to the bridge; lights flashed eerily in the darkness, the claustrophobic feeling was emphasized for Jack by the proximity of the massive rock face, blocking the ‘view’ of eternity.
“Return sample,” commanded Atkins. He watched in lonely amusement as the pica robot returned. It was named with a double entendre after the earthly gopher-like mountain rock rabbit, and like the bizarre eating disorder wherein one compulsively eats soil.
The pica skittered back into the palm of the pincers; the door shut. Pressurization of the lock took seconds – Atkins remembered when it used to take half a day.
On the count of ten the pica robot manifested itself in his command headquarters.
“Heat,” he commanded.
The pica briefly glowed – then it extended a robotic arm with a small sample cup at the end of the probe. Atkins picked it up. He peered inside. There was an melted extraterrestrial water sample. Fresh water resources were the new “Eldorado” out here in space.
Yes, humankind had found water, but no life. Yet here was the substance required to support life. How could water exist in such abundance that fleets of ships just like his, spent lonely light years mining and catapulting space bales of deep frozen water back to near-space orbiting bases for refining.
The glass of melted space water was tempting. Water was such a simple thing. Out here, you couldn’t have simple things. Every thing was either complicated or specifically ordered. Everything was supposed to be so exciting; to go where no man had gone before. They’d gone, they’d entered and crossed the final frontier, and found nothing, but water.
Unlike early space adventure shows they’d found no aliens, no excitement, no high paying hi-tech jobs. Here he was doing just a mining job, more automated than anything on earth, and completely boring.
He knew it was forbidden, but looking at the pool of clear fluid in the cup, he felt a sudden urge to taste water. Real water that was not from a processed tube; he wanted water from a cup like when he was a child on earth, on a hot day, after vigorous play, after rolling in the grass, laughing under the warm sun, staring at the tiny ants that marched past his head, squinting at the golden orb in the sky, watching the clouds, dreaming of the stars.
It was forbidden to drink untreated water, but he suddenly felt an urge to break the rules.
Why not? No one was looking. No one would care. The mineral content had been assessed already and was well within human consumption water drinking guidelines.
One sip would make him feel human again and not just an extension of this lifeless machine.
As the cool water slipped down his throat he wondered how humans had been so naive as to believe there would be aliens in space. He supposed it was normal – like a child imagining their parent to be gone forever when they are in the other room, so childlike humans could not imagine themselves to truly be alone in the universe.
But so they were.
The water was delicious. He drank again. He felt compelled to drink the entire cup and regretted finishing it off. Now there would not be a sample. He’d have to send the pica out again.
“Pica sample,” he voice commanded.
The pica stood still.
“Pica sample,” he commanded again.
The pica didn’t move.
How odd, he suddenly felt limp.
“Pica assay,” he demanded.
The pica did not move, but appeared to be getting closer.
Strange thoughts began to slither through his head. He was separating from himself in some way, perhaps losing his mind. Perhaps losing his body. He was crying. He felt streams of water pouring down his face. He looked down and saw his legs pooling on the ground around the pica. He tried to talk but only drool came out.
“I am life,” he heard a new voice in his head, “the water of life.”
And then he knew. We are not alone. And it was too late. He had become the alien life force; the alien life force lived where he’d least expected. His melting body pooled around the pica on the floor. The pica’s automatic water vacuum arm extended and he was drawn up into the pica’s storage chest. Like clockwork, the pica made its way down the ramp, to the door in the palm of the mechanical pincer hands.
“No,” he thought, “no!” His mind screamed out in terror as his consciousness and fluid body left the security and warmth of the ship to the asteroid’s face, locked in the belly of the pica robot. The pica ejected the fluid back into the asteroid hole. It beeped farewell and returned to the secret door in the palm of the hand.
“Commander Atkins?” came the call from base. “Commander, return…over.”
Eerily the earthly metallic monster space mining machine remained clamped to the space rock. The once fluid Atkins had been frozen in time. The black sky was heavy with the burden of the truth. He remembered, fleetingly, the Boy Scout admonition, the last thing that ever came to his assimilated mind.
“Don’t drink the water.”
Resistance had been futile.