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Audit's Abacus

Robert Bagnall lives on the English Riviera, within sight of Dartmoor. He has completed five undistinguished marathons but once held a world record for eating cream teas. The two may be related.

He has been writing speculative fiction since the early 1990s. His words have also cropped up on radio, in newspapers, and out of the mouths of UK government ministers, for whom he was briefly a speechwriter.

He has appeared in "The Best of British Science Fiction" twice, and his novel "2084" was published by Double Dragon in 2017. He is currently working on a further novel, "Toefoot" at glacial pace whilst collecting rejection emails from publishers and agents for the opening part of a YA sci-fi trilogy. He can be contacted via his blog meschera.blogspot.co.uk.
After Audit had integrated itself with the systems on board Saikat Bhosle's ship, its artificial eyes dilating and constricting, its head tilting as though listening intently, it asked flatly, "Would you like me to assess the risk of this ship taking off?"
"Are you being funny?" Saikat Bhosle snapped, wondering what to do with the dead systems-master that he had been forced to strip out mid-flight, now little more than a black box and an octopus of wires. He had promised himself that he would upgrade to an android--it seemed to be expected nowadays--just at a time of his choosing.
"Humor is a higher level of programming than I have been endowed with. My deep specialism is risk management."
"I know, I know.... But I can teach you. I can teach you humor."
"Engine and structure nearing end of life," Audit stated, "Communications system patched beyond recommended levels. Integrity of life support cannot be assessed."
"Enough," Saikat Bhosle ordered. "Please do not attempt humor on your own, especially irony. Right now, we have cargo to move. And we are behind schedule."
It was a heavy landing, made more so by Saikat Bhosle's refusal to jettison his cargo until the last moment. They plowed into silvery water, the cockpit a delirium of red emergency lighting and shrill alarms, before slamming hard into rock.
Saikat unstrapped himself and instantly regretted it as he rolled out of his seat. He grimaced, suspecting broken ribs.
"Where are we?"
"46578MNU. It is regarded as a class four asteroid belt object."
This did not sound good. Not a planet. Barely a planetoid.
"Oxygen?"
"Limited."
"Gravity?"
"Limited."
"Water."
"Limited."
A moment's confusion. "I thought we put down into water."
"Mercury."
This was worse. They'd put down onto a poisoned rock. And coms was gone. They couldn't even send a mayday.
"What state are we in?"
"Repairable. But we will be severely limited in power. We will be limited to one take-off only."
"If we can get to a planet where we can be repaired...."
"We will be limited to one take-off only."
With a sense of horror Saikat Bhosle understood. One take-off was all the engines could take, burning them out. After that they would drift. All he could do was laugh.
"Do you wish to continue discussions on humor?" Audit deadpanned, misunderstanding.
"No. Can you carry out the repairs?"
Saikat's hand had come away bloody from under his flight jacket. He was more seriously injured than he realized.
"I have the capability."
The first crumb of comfort. If he had simply fitted a new passive systems-master he would have been the one outside in the mercury fumes with the arc welder.
"Get it repaired. And then plot a course that gets us anywhere."
"Please clarify."
A shudder of irritation-- only he seemed to have any sense of the magnitude of the hole they were in.
"Anywhere with life. Anywhere that can help us. Plot a course that takes us into the gravitational pull of an inhabited planet. Or a floating trading post. Plot a course that collides with a passing freighter. Plot a course that makes us drift into a militarized zone. Anything. Nothing else matters. You understand?"
The hatch opened with a sigh, an airlock's worth of breathable oxygen lost, and Audit descended to the planetoid's surface.
They had hit a thin lake of mercury, planing like a skimmed stone, then beaching on dry land against a low rocky outcrop. It was pure bad luck. From one arcing horizon to the other a plateau stretched; the only visible features of any note were the mercury lake and the shapeless basalt lump against which Saikat Bhosle's craft crazily slumped. Otherwise, as far as the eye could see, the steppe was covered in grey spherical boulders.
Impervious to the mercury fumes, Audit carried out the repairs diligently. The damage to the superstructure was drastic and yet irrelevant. Drastic because an entire landing leg had been torn away as they skated up on to the beach. Irrelevant, as the chance of it being required again for a normal landing was minimal. If anything, take-off would be helped by the missing weight.
Audit quickly calculated the risks of removing the remaining landing legs, using the recovered metal to repair hull breaches. The time required was considerable, but the percentage chance of survival was increased by... Audit's eyes flickered, and it had a figure.
As it worked Audit assessed their options, which narrowed to one: the artificial trading post, Pointer S67, a floating fueling point. The ship's charts provided all the astronomical data required for Audit to set a course, incorporating the gravitational effects of the planetoid and the various other bodies that they would have to slingshot around.
Audit stopped.
Its eyes pulsated, its head cocked. It felt itself come up a mental wall, a blackness, a void. The calculation was beyond the number of digits it could hold.
How could this be?
Symbiotically attached to the ship as Audit had been, the crash landing must have damaged it, burnt out memory. It could mentally hold the positions of all the planets, their spin, their direction of travel, but each second they moved on and their effects on the craft--which would also have moved on--would change. The slingshot would skew their path a fraction of a degree. And their path would change, and so would the positions of the moons and suns and asteroids, of their target planets. Over and over. Ad infinitum.
Plot a course that gets us anywhere. Nothing else matters.
The smallest error at take-off could mean never even seeing Pointer S67. The calculations had to be precise.
Audit cast its artificial eyes about and settled on the sea of boulders. It knew what was required.
Re-entering the craft Audit impassively took in the sight of Saikat Bhosle's cadaver, his eyes and mouth open, as if he had expired from the energy expended in sucking in his last breath. The black stain that ballooned under flight jacket belied the real cause of death, but even if he had not bled to death he would have long since asphyxiated in any case.
"I believe my calculations have been performed to a satisfactory degree of precision to enter the gravitational field of the trading post Pointer S67 at an optimum angle of descent of forty point three degrees."
Saikat Bhosle said nothing. His hair and nails had continued to grow after death, straggling over grey paper-thin skin. He was held together by his clothes as much as by the remains of sinew and cartilage.
Audit strapped itself in, integrating with what was left of the craft's systems. Diagnostics indicated sufficient life left in the engines for launch, to escape the weak gravitational pull of the planetoid, so mercifully weak that Audit had been able to gather even the largest rocks from the furthest horizon, and then move them into vast ever-shifting rows and columns.
The craft lurched as it blasted free, shaking, scraping and rattling. Alarms filled the cockpit, pulsing shrill scarlet screams, but they were spaceborne again. Audit used the last of the power to ensure that the trajectory of its drift was exact and precise and then, engines dead, powered down to passively monitor. There was nothing else left for it to do.
Audit's eyes gave their characteristic flicker.
It powered itself up out of standby.
It was eight hundred and seven hours, twenty-two minutes and eight seconds since it had powered down.
Something was wrong. They were not where they should be.
As it ran and re-ran its calculations, as far as its limited memory would allow, it concluded that they would miss Pointer S67 by several thousand miles.
Audit assessed each variable in its calculation, the basis for taking on trust the figures it had. All astronomical data that it had used was verifiably accurate. So, what had....
Its routine paused.
Audit had not accounted for the countless millions of rocks it had moved in creating its abacus. Two hundred Earth years it had spent ensuring its calculations were precise, fulfilling Saikat Bhosle's order to "Plot a course that gets us anywhere. Nothing else matters." The hundreds of thousands of tons of material had imperceptibly altered the planetoid's orbit, introduced an indiscernible, but nonetheless real, eccentricity. A variable missed, error had compounded upon error, sealing their fate.
However Audit analyzed what had taken place, it only ever came back to the same conclusion: that its own diligence had been its downfall.
Audit's batteries were virtually drained; its artificial eyes would soon dim and close. But, with the last of its energy, it found itself registering a strange new sensation in its circuits. It turned to the semi-mummified remains of the captain and asked, "Saikat Bhosle, is this what you would describe as irony?"
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 1st, 2020
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