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art by Jeffrey Redmond

30 Pounds of Human Tissue

Jennifer Campbell-Hicks lives in Arvada, Colorado, where she splits her time between her two jobs as a copy editor and a mother of three. She blogs at jennifercampbellhicks.blogspot.com.

The bot scanned the pod's contents 1.3 seconds after launch: one spent nuclear rod; one cooling container for the rod; five gallons of liquid chemical waste; one small item of synthetic cotton; 30 pounds of human tissue.
The bot searched its database of acceptable items. Neither the synthetic cotton nor the human tissue qualified for Earthside disposal. Both should have been incinerated aboard the station. The bot flagged them as unacceptable and redirected its top levels to piloting the pod toward Earth.
"Where's Mommy?"
The voice came from the human tissue. Improbability factor of 0.9132. The bot redirected its top three levels to a rescan, which showed muscle movement, blood circulation, and oxygen use. It was alive. It was also young, based on its weight and voice frequency. Name: girl. Pronouns: she, her.
In 167 launches, the bot had no record of a human in its pod, alive or dead.
"I want my mommy." She hugged the synthetic cotton. It was shaped like an Earth creature. Species: Ursus Maritimus, polar bear.
The bot considered several possible responses. It said, "You must vacate this pod immediately. Danger. Limited oxygen. Insufficient temperature controls."
Water leaked from the girl's visual scanners.
"Repeat. You must vacate this pod immediately. Danger."
The girl did not move to comply. The bot concluded that was because she lacked appropriate equipment for evacuation into the vacuum of space.
Nasal discharge dripped over her upper lip. She wiped her face on the polar bear. "Mommy!" she yelled. "Mommy!"
The bot searched its database.
Mommy: A child's name for his or her mother. See also: Mama.
Mother: A female parent, one who gives birth to a child after a nine-month gestation in the uterus, or womb.
"Your mother is not here," the bot said.
The girl's leakage increased.
The Priority 1 directive of all bots was to protect human life, but the pod itself would not sustain the girl for the 12 hours required to reach Earth. Appropriate action: Return to the station. Negative. The bot was programmed for Earth landing only, after which a shuttle craft returned it to the station.
Alternative action: Continue to Earth.
The pod's oxygen supply would last 12.5 hours at the girl's current rate of use. Asphyxiation risk factor of 0.2278. Temperature was a higher priority. Since leaving the station, the interior had dropped 20.1 degrees Celsius. The girl could not regulate her internal temperature. She would freeze to death. Probability factor of 0.9826.
The girl stopped leaking. She dropped the synthetic cotton bear and examined the nuclear rod's cooling chamber. She leaned toward it with her mouth muscle extended. The bot ran a risk assessment of her current course of action.
"Stop," it said. "No. Stop."
She stopped. Her visual scanners widened.
If she had touched her mouth muscle to the canister, the metal's high thermal conductivity would have frozen her saliva faster than her body could warm it. She would have been stuck.
The bot simulated scenarios on the nuclear rod within the container. Could it be used to modulate the pod's temperature? Negative. The rod's unpredictability factor was too high. Also, the girl would not survive the radiation exposure.
What about the liquid chemical waste? Success factor of 0.1099.
The only object with temperature control was the bot.
"I'm cold." The girl sat, hugged her bear, and wiped her nasal discharge. "I want my mommy."
The bot formulated a plan.
It redirected five top levels to its pincers and opened its front panel. It removed parts and set them aside. Wires, sensors, controllers, belts. The bot's topmost level alerted it to internal damage. Shutdown factor of 0.3644.
The bot worked. Its movements became slower and less precise. Two mid-levels suffered catastrophic failure. The bot kept only what it required to pilot the pod and warm the girl. Last, it unhooked its power core and placed the box on the floor.
"Get in."
The girl shook her head. "I don't want to."
"Get in. Warm. Womb."
The girl toddled over. "Warm?"
She climbed inside with the bear and curled into a ball.
The bot closed the front panel. It could operate on emergency power reserves for 11 hours. It shut down visual, audio, and tactile sensors to stretch the reserves farther. Success factor of 0.5109.
Inside, 30 pounds of human tissue settled down, hiccupped twice, and fell asleep.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, August 20th, 2012

Author Comments

This story came out of a challenge from a friend to write a flash piece every month. As with most of my stories, I'm unsure what exactly sparked the idea, but this story holds my record for shortest time from conception to submission: two days. This is my first professional publication.

- Jennifer Campbell-Hicks
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