Friday, September 10, 2010

Penelope's Final Approach

My #fridayflash and this week's entry in the writer's weights exercise. The challenge: write a scene of 1000 words or less with one or more allusions. The theme: wheel.

The wheel-ship spun through the moon's sphere of influence and began the final approach to Earth. Penelope sat in the smooth upholstered captain's chair that had been relinquished to her when the last of the scientists had died. Her captain's display captured the cratered surface of the moon and Penelope wondered -- for the hundredth time -- how the solar system would look if you could see it with her own eyes instead of through CARL's monitors. Of course, the wheel's spinning around a central needle would've left any view a blur. Noise, black and white dots from an analog signal, interrupted her view before resolving into an old man whose jowls hung from his cheeks.

"This is space control. Do you Roger?"

Penelope muted the audio. She wasn't sure she was ready to return. Born during the seven years of experiments that her parents ran on Calypso, Saturn's moon, everyone she'd known had grown old and died. She knew little about earth except the stories her parents had told her. A lifetime of drifting on the wheel ship.

CARL's cyclopean eye glowed red with an oscillating punctuation to his words. "All I want --"

All they wanted was to guide her in. Penelope knew that. Penelope looked at CARL's aperture, one of many on the ship from where CARL, Cerveau Analytique de Recherche et de Liaison (Analytic Research and Communication Brain), monitored the ship. "I'm scared." She thought of the broadcast show that CARL had intercepted from Earth. An entertainment show with a house full of plate glass windows hanging from the carbon nanotube infrastructure of a space elevator. A dozen contestants on the show had lived under a camera and voted their housemates away. They weren't that different from her living under CARL's eyes.

"A thousand hours."

A tear rolled down Penelope's cheek as the man from space command became more agitated, his mouth jerking as he shouted in her displays. "Can't we go back?" She waited but the eye aperture remained dark. An entire lifetime lived on the wheel-ship traveling to Saturn and through the asteroid belt as the researchers had taken samples on Scylla 155, Charybdis 388, Circe 34, and many other asteroids. "Look at me, a pale girl who's never sunbathed."

"How beautiful you are."

An AI's words. The solar radiation had taken its toll. It left CARL with a weakening mind until now, she was left with her only companion someone who's only words were song titles.

"One more time."

Did she have a choice? Penelope toggled the mute and enabled visuals. "This is Penelope from the wheel-ship Discovery."

The space controller's eyes lit up. "The Discovery?"

"Yes." Penelope completed the final approach plans. Her screen darkened to pinpricks of stars until she refocused it on the station with Earth's blue oceans in the background. She shuddered.

She had time to work out and shower before they'd dock and hoped the weights would cheer her up. As she passed CARL's aperture, he said, "Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me".

Penelope palmed her hand over the glass sphere of the aperture.

"Hot! Hot! Hot!"

Penelope smiled. At least one thing to anticipate. Real conversation.


  1. What a strange way for an AI to communicate, but somehow reminiscent of HAL's end in 2001. Sad, but hopeful. Nice tale.

  2. @Valerie, thank-you. Yes, I intended the story to be reminiscent of HAL (CARL was the name used in the French version of 2001); however, the focus is more on Penelope in this piece and therefore CARL is intended to be more benign.

    @Nevets, Daisy Bell.

  3. What a lonely life it must have been growing up with only an AI for company. The ending left me happy though... hopeful that she won't have too much trouble integrating into society.

    Didn't have time to join in this week! Looking forward to the next exercise though.

  4. @TS, the intent was that she wasn't entirely growing up alone, but I can see how that impression occurs (I don't really talk about her age or when the scientists died out). Will look forward to you joining next week if you have time.

  5. That is a neat interface with an AI. I didn't know about CARL - that's hilarious.

  6. @Wiswell, the interesting thing was that it was just the french dubbed version, the nameplate on the wall still said HAL-9000.

  7. Yes, I was curious about her age and the timeline of events. I didn't necessarily think she had always been alone but it seemed as though it had been awhile. What a strange existence to contemplate. And then imagine being thrust into the limelight once she goes back to Earth. I wonder how she will fare. Nice story!

  8. @PJ, thank-you. Yes, she's going to have her 15 min of fame and a lifetime of humanity thrown at her.

  9. It could be worse, she could have been stuck with Mother for company.

    It actually brings to mind the sci-fi movie 'Moon'.

    Very evocative piece.

  10. @Icy, LOL. The IMBD summary looks interesting on Moon. The synopsis also reminds me of an F&SF short story where a woman is abandoned on the moon as world war erupts and many years later the survivors rebuild and find her still alive in space. (Can't remember the title or figure it out from TOC's).

  11. I must admit I've never seen 2001 so I can't comment on CARL's likeness to HAL, but it does remind me strongly of 'Path of the Fury' by David Weber.

    I like how the radiation has affected the AI, it somehow makes the piece more real and tragic, sort of like a Einstein suffering from dementia.

    "CARL's cyclopean eye" is my favourite allusion.

  12. @Belinda, My sambo (swedish for SO) has probably read that so I'll have to ask her about that story. Although my sambo is a fan of the series (she's currently rereading them), Weber's voice didn't work for me, so I haven't gotten far in his series.

    I'm glad someone commented on one of the odyssey references. I specifically chose those references to emphasize the length of the journey and to hint at the struggles without describing them. Not sure if all of that worked.

  13. I didn't catch the Odyssey references, but then I've never been a fan of classic Greek literature. Also once you mention CARL I automatically start searching for 2001 references which, even without seeing the movie, are easier for me to pick up because they're such a large part of our popular culture.

    Perhaps if you named someone Homer or Ulysses the Odyssey references would jump out more.

  14. @Belinda, I chuckled because Penelope was Odysseus' wife, of course I think I'm falling victim to my typical tact of using obscure references as part of the allusions.

  15. Very vivid MC here. A stranger to humanity and yet craving proper conversaton. I think she'll be fine when she gets here!

  16. @mazz, thanks. Yes, it must have been hard being alone as an extrovert on that ship.