I’m a right yo-yo here. The long walks I take with Herb always send me on soul-searching reveries. Some days the loneliness just about kills me. I think about the little girl I was; if only she could see me now on Mars!
“Talk about an achievement, eh, Herb?” he just whirrs a bit. Sometimes I feel like he’s answering me, overheating his little engine into a hum-hum answer. It’s crazy, of course. I know Herb only reacts to a few specific orders, and that he wasn’t built for direct interaction with humans. Maybe I should tell Captain Graham and let him know I’m going cuckoo.
“Or, I could just get a fucking grip. What do you think, Herb?”
Right. I’m nearly halfway through the mission with seven more weeks to go. I look around the foggy brick-red desert my 8×8 mechanical dog and I are stuck in. Sometimes I play with him and steal one of the rocks he’s collected with his tongs, waving it in front of his main camera head to make sure he’s following it. Then I throw it away for him to fetch. I have to make do with whatever distractions I can find.
“Ok, Herb, enough fun for today. Back to the ship.”
While Herb plugs himself in and transmits his latest data, I pick up a pouch full of apricot puree and squirt it into my mouth. I’m lucky the food is so bland or I would never stop snacking. It’s the boredom, I know. Even at home, on Earth, when I get restless I start raiding the cupboards.
“How would you like me, Mr. Herbert, had I a few more pounds on me?”
Then the main monitor lights up and the Captain appears.
“Captain Graham,” I stand awkwardly to attention. I am still not used to the way discipline has relaxed since I was sent into space. The usual formality has been replaced, for some reason, by a loose, friendly chat-like style. I suppose they can’t expect so much ass-kissing from someone who has so many expensive toys in her hands.
“Look, there’s a problem with RB31’s data. We’ve been looking at it and we thought it might be the transmission at first but…”
“What is it?
“Why do you go with RB31 on his rounds?”
I feel myself blushing.
“I–I’m sorry, it’s just that I get bored,” I want to tell him that I’m a highly-trained engineer, that I could fix pretty much anything that went wrong on board or with Herb. With the whole mission being automated, however, all that knowledge is worthless.
“Alison, you have to stop. You’re on all the landscape shots RB took. Every single bloody one of them. It’s crazy. The techs think your presence is confusing him. He might be taking you for an interesting rock formation or something.”
“I’m sorry Captain. I had no idea.”
“That’s only the start of it. I think you’re going to have a lot of work to do on him. On the pictures from the past five hours, he’s started using only his secondary cameras. I don’t know how he does it but, he’s managed to stick his main head into the frame as well. It looks like you two are sending us your honeymoon pictures, I swear!”
Captain Graham puts his head down in his open palms. This isn’t good.
“Another thing, Alison. His rock samples? Well, first he hasn’t done any drilling today, and… Jesus, it’s unbelievable. I know it sounds dumb, but it seems he’s been collecting rocks according to shape rather than their geological interest. Well, that’s how it looks from the pictures anyway. Care to confirm that for me?”
I stand up, confused, and crouch by Herb in the corner where he’s plugged into the motherboard. I slide my hand slowly along his shell, listening to the purr of his motor until I find the clasp of his sample tray and open it. There, heaped together, are little red rocks. All heart-shaped. A whole tray of them.
“Hearts?” says Captain Graham, and the image on the monitor frizzles. It goes black, then comes on again.
“Alison,” the Captain says.
“I. Heart. You.”
The image of the Captain skips from one word to the next and for a second I think I heard it wrong, but it starts again.
I. Heart. You.
I try to re-establish contact with Home Base, but nothing works.
I. Heart. You.
“RB, contact Home Base!” I look over at Herb, still parked in the corner, and his main head goes up and down, nodding, along with the words from the Captain’s haunted mouth.
BIO: Armel Dagorn is now back in his native France after living in Ireland for seven years. His writing has appeared in magazines such as Apex Magazine, Lamplight and Holdfast, and is forthcoming in the anthology Haunted Futures (Ghostwoods Books). The chapbook of his story “Out-of-town Harry” is out now from In Short Publishing. Find him at armeldagorn.wordpress.com.