Nova reared up on his haunches and waddled after his prey. As big as an astronaut’s helmet, he had the tan, short-haired head and paws of a Boxer, but from nape to ankle he resembled an Apatosaurus; long in the neck and tail, hunchbacked, potbellied, and girthy in the lower extremities. He dropped to all fours, broke into a sprint, and gained on MR, the outpost’s Maintenance Robot.
MR ramrodded forward on high traction tires. Shaped like a doorless mini-refrigerator, the robot extended a gripper arm, unlatched a wall panel, and tossed it.
Nova straightened his forelimbs and planted his butt on the smooth, matte floor-plates. Instead of braking, he spun in circles and hit the discarded panel with a bang. Somersaulting through the air, he landed on his back and slid to a belly-up stop. Nova blinked and wiggled his stubby legs. The creamy skin of his undercarriage flowed from his chin to his groin, pulled taut across his navel-less midsection, and gave way to the flat contour between his legs.
Nova’s tongue popped out of his mouth.
MR, cloaked in shadow, scanned the dim corridor. Aperture rings rotated around its eyes; dual-lenses with backlit pupils. MR pinpointed the detached panel, which rested just behind Nova. The robot crouched in a hiss of hydraulic decompression.
Nova rolled onto his stomach. With a sigh, he spread his front legs and nuzzled his chin between his paws. Moments later he shuffled to a window. A gauzy pane of electrified vapor swirled within its silver-edged border.
Outside lay the vast, frigid wastelands of Europa, its white landscape torn open by miles of thin, rust-colored fissures. Frozen, desolate, and flat with an occasional ridge, the moon’s striped surface was an upward facing mirror. Haloed by a faint torus of dust rings, the reflection of Jupiter’s storm-razed face dominated the horizon.
Nova cocked his head.
Nearby, a geyser erupted.
Water splashed over the makeshift landing pad, glistening. It was flanked by a row of three walled, roofless terminals. Stacked alongside were unfitted building blocks. A Construction Android stood by stonily, slumped at the back, with a block held in mid lift. Moisture beaded atop the CA’s exposed solar-radiation panels. They drank deep of the universe so as to fill the CA’s depleted fuel cells. The block fell from its dead grasp and floated to the ground. Puffs of dislodged ice crystals plumed from its underside and faded into the ether.
Nova pressed his wet nose into the window’s plasma. The proximity alarm beeped. He drew back and batted a paw at the dispersed particles, shimmering like fireflies.
While in the bioprinting bay, Adam sat up abruptly and gave each sleeve of his blue jumpsuit a yank. “What’s Nova getting into now?” He stood and backed away from the architectural plans outstretched before him. Similar to linen, the flat screen TV flowed over the workbench and hung over its corners. It showed blueprints foretelling of a sprawling municipality. At the top were the words, “EUROPA COMPLEX ONE.” The proximity alarm beeped again. Adam looked away from the flexible display, and it powered off. He walked into the hallway and called, “Come here, boy!”
Nova spun around and wagged his tail. He dashed toward his master, stepping in a puddle of drool. His tiny pawprints dotted the trackway behind him.
MR rotated its lenses, and emerged from the darkness. It replaced the discarded panel and lowered its gripper into a hollowed crevice in its back. It riffled through its tool bin. Eventually, it extracted a heat laser and atomized Nova’s spit.
With the floor cleaned, MR modified its gaze. The receding silhouette of Nova scampering toward Adam reflected off its rounded lenses.
Adam watched MR complete its maintenance routine. He knelt and patted Nova on his wrinkled forehead. “Chasing MR? I’m sure CA approves.” Adam winked. “Looks like the bots got the best of you again.”
Nova rose onto his hind quarters, placed his paws on Adam’s knee, and snapped his leathered tail.
Adam straightened. “C’mon, Nova. Let’s get back to it. We’ve got astronauts on the way!”
They strolled through the tubed corridor. It was unlit, but for starlight. The soft sheen of the cosmos poured through its wall-sized windows.
Adam turned back, “Nova? C’mon, boy.”
The hairs on Nova’s head raised. They fell out in clumps and drifted to the floor. His flesh darkened and shrank, exposing the outline of his skeleton. Round eyed and short of breath, he tucked his tail between his shaking legs. Froth spewed from his mouth and spilled at Adam’s feet.
“Nova!” Adam reached for his partner.
Nova looked toward Adam. Nova’s eyes rolled. He yelped once, then dry-heaved, and hit the floor with a thud.
Adam scooped him up, and ran.
The outpost’s gravitational turbine groaned overhead.
Adam bolted past the cafeteria with its empty open-faced cabinets. He ran past the crew’s quarters with its bare walls and unused beds. At last, he stopped at a communications panel, one of many, located at the back of a circular space. The ceiling curved downward and supported a disk-shaped portal at its center. Celestial rays sparkled over the murky interior. He picked his way through the maze of tubes, wires, and dinosaur shaped chew-toys. Piles of used print cartridges, spent dry film lubricant containers, and a few low-gravity power tools cluttered the perimeter.
Adam whispered in the twilight, “We’re home, Nova.”
With a flick of Adam’s wrist, the utility closet was awash with bright, ambient light. He gently laid Nova at the floor’s center, and placed at his side a gnawed, mini Tyrannosaurus rex.
“You’re gonna be okay now. Right, Nova?” Adam leaned over and scratched Nova’s chin. A dull, red hue emitted from Nova’s underside. Adam frowned. “What is… Nova, let me see your belly.”
Nova’s rear legs crisscrossed as he flopped onto his back; front legs splayed wide at his shoulders. He resembled a small alligator-balloon: deflated, packed with twigs and worms. His glowing abdomen quivered.
The logo emerged just above Nova’s groin. A ring-shaped insignia pulsated with his wheezes. It evolved from a luminous outline to a throbbing relief of conjoined welts. At its center a galactic VoIP – Voice over Internet Protocol – address underscored four digital numbers, which ticked backward. A larger circle encompassed the first. Text curved in-between their borders. At its top, “BioSynth” and below, “Printed Labor on Demand.”
Adam memorized the VoIP address while Nova twitched at his feet. He steadied his trembling limbs, clenched his jaw, and faced the Smartwall. Raising both hands, he punched his airborne fingers at it as if they were pushing buttons.
The Smartwall hummed. A dull hue surfaced at its corners, swelled, and met at its center. Intergalactic static gave way to a series of long beeps and short pops. With a snap, the wall bloomed with colors before fading to violet. Thin projection streams crept outward from its depths and into the room. The bald, pale yellow head of a woman appeared. Light twinkled at the fringes of her face.
Repeated text swirled beneath the hologram in a linear curve, “VoIP Secure Channel Cipher Detected = Enabled. BioSynth Inbound Call Center Request Detected = Enabled. Greybeta = Online.”
Adam held his breath.
Greybeta’s eyes were merely sockets; lidless, empty pits crowned angular cheekbones. Her synthesized monotone chilled the room. “You are Adam of NASA’s Europa Complex One.” Greybeta’s light-lips twisted into a half smile, “Construction milestones are met. Core systems are functional.” She hesitated, “This is an unauthorized‑”
“Please!” Adam wrung his hands, and softened his tone. “I think Nova’s dying.”
“Nova? You named it? Odd. Nova, is it? Very well. Yes, I have confirmed that Nova is at final stage. Goodbye, and thank you for contacting BioSynth.”
“Wait!” Adam’s voice cracked. His words faded into a thoughtful murmur. “Please help my friend.”
“Right.” Greybeta crinkled her nose. “Friend.”
Adam reached down and ran his fingers across Nova’s logo, hot to the touch. Nova convulsed and gagged. Fluids leaked from his orifices.
Adam rose, his face flush. He pointed at Nova’s festering symbol. “What is that?”
“It is the BioSynth trademark.”
“Tell me what it means.”
“I did. It is our trademark.”
Adam curled his fists. “Then what’s with that damn clock!?”
Greybeta turned her eye holes upward. “No, Adam. It is not a clock, per se. It is a scientific instrument. All BioSynth units reveal a digital chronometer at end-of-cycle, along with our trademark. Its core function is to alert appropriate personnel to the near-death state of the unit. When the digits reach zero, units complete their final stage: disintegration. As you can see by the countdown of Nova’s chronometer, he is almost dead.”
“Nova’s not yours to kill.” Adam slowly crossed his arms. “He will not die today.”
“Well…” Greybeta leaned forward. She narrowed her eye pits. “He most certainly is, and will.”
Adam winced and lowered his head.
“I have just reviewed Nova’s original blueprint, his 3D solid model.” Greybeta had blurred momentarily, but then snapped back into focus. “He was the first 3D print at Europa Complex One. A test print, if you will. He’s two distinct species, but printed as a single unit.” She smirked. “Apparently, one of our engineers has a sense of humor.”
Adam looked at Nova. He dropped his arms. “You made him?”
“Yes. BioSynth’s patented bioinks are merely prefabricated life forms in their primordial state, but are adaptable for non-living objects as well. Speaking to the former, by way of 3D printing and our lifespan warranty, we are the galaxy’s premier producer of customized organisms. BioSynth ensures an affordable, sustainable, deep-space-ready workforce. And NASA is, of course, a valued customer.”
“But…” Nova opened his eyes. Adam smiled. They held each other’s gaze. “He knows me.”
“Right. Before you teamed with Nova, he was a downloadable matrix built at point of origin, disassembled, copied, and then printed elsewhere. Our neuron reconstruction techniques allow us to code for mannerisms and memories. We input that data directly into units. In this way, if so designed, newly minted fabrications will have fated relationships at birth. For the sake of authenticity, we also print accessories! You have seen the chew-toys…”
Nova reached upward with a trembling leg. Adam bent and gingerly took hold of his paw. “It’s going to be fine. You’ll be okay.” He stroked Nova’s side, tenderly. As with hot knives melting butter, his fingers bore into Nova’s flesh.
Adam recoiled. Nova’s paw flopped out of his palm. He held his other hand high and stared slack-jawed at the black goo clotting on his fingertips.
Greybeta stayed on program. “Adam, NASA has their first team in route along with the BioSynth supply drop. Finish the terminals and tarmac. Use the bioink reserves you have left to complete those specific operations. It is vital that construction deadlines remain on target. There is no need for delay.”
Adam gawked at his finger-holes in Nova’s side. They were open portals. Through them he saw gnarled muscle detach from breaking bone. Blood curdled and squirted past open-ended veins.
Nova’s eyes swelled, popped out of their sockets, and with connective tissues intact they dangled from his cranium like ornaments.
Then, Nova no longer moved, save the involuntary pull of his lungs.
Adam wiped Nova’s blood from his hand, and onto his jumpsuit. A wet spot stained the white, stitched border of the patch on his chest. The patch was round and black. At its top was the image of Europa’s lower half. A single word formed the patch’s base, inlaid with white, five-pointed stars: “ADAM.”
“You said there’s a blueprint for Nova. It’d be located here, in the datastore, just like any other solid model.” Adam lifted his chin. “Right?”
Greybeta’s eyebrows sparkled as she raised them. “Well, yes. In the same manner as all nanostructured objects printed while creating this complex, Nova was essentially born in the bioprinting bay.” Traces of light slid off the sides of her head. “I recognize that you care for him, but it really does not matter. You are here to build this complex, Adam. Complete your mission.”
Adam gathered Nova into his arms, and looked at him softly. “And now I’m gonna save you, Nova.”
“What? Wait. Stop. You can’t… You are hereby ordered to desist!” Greybeta paused. With a mouth partly open, half smiling, she proceeded, “Every unit has a kill-switch, Adam. Do you understand? I can zero a chronometer remotely. BioSynth will meet its contractual obligations. I could easily reroute a Martian supply drone, land it hard, and print another-”
“To hell with you.”
Adam dodged the robot as it rolled into the utility closet. In turn, MR observed the two companions hustle their way through the doorway. Whirling back to the task at hand, MR acknowledged Greybeta’s nod.
The Smartwall disengaged, and Greybeta vanished.
MR pulled the mess of gore into focus. It lowered its boxy head as if overwhelmed. Sluggishly at first, it drove toward Nova’s puddles.
The only hearts within hundreds of millions of miles beat in unison.
They arrived at the bioprinting bay, which was located on the other side of the outpost. Adam stepped through the 3D bioprinter’s large entryway. He kissed what was left of Nova’s face, and placed him on the raised print bed.
At 10 feet high, wide, and deep, a 3D bioprinter provided the components for successful colonization. As the de facto deep-space womb of creation, it printed every gear, every tool, and every block.
An audible click came from Nova. Adam examined the logo above Nova’s crotch as it beamed anew with sharp, red light.
Nova’s clock had hit zero.
Adam lurched backward, turned, and scrambled for the bioprinter’s controls; a spread of flat panels inlaid near the front door. Once outside, he pounded on those shiny panes of glass and whimpered.
The bioprinter’s wide, glass door slid shut. Its anti-gravitational properties engaged.
Nova floated and spun within the chamber. Extruders energized above him. They descended, and slithered around his frame. White and red filaments flowed from their spouts. They layered strips of bioink, stacking one on top of the other, and encased him within a pink placenta. After several passes the extruders emptied, and retracted.
Adam peered through the bioprinter’s transparent door. He scratched at his abdomen.
The bioinks hardened unevenly, leaving Nova’s skin in a state akin to a pitted moon. Thin rods resembling ant antennae poked out from under the print bed. Some burnt and sliced at him with light. Others cooled him with chemical mists. Yet others stabbed him, feeding fluids into his arteries. The last restarted his bitsy heart with a dose of electricity.
The rods tucked themselves away.
The bioprinter disengaged. Nova drifted downward. The door slid open once he touched the floor. He raised his head, fur still damp and growing. With a hack of phlegm, his breathing stabilized. His bright eyes opened. They found Adam at the other side of the room, laughing.
Nova wagged his tail.
Adam bawled. Grinning, he wiped away a black tear. He grabbed for a freestanding control panel, but slipped. His skin darkened. He fumbled with his jumpsuit’s stuck zipper. He ripped the suit off instead. Naked, gasping for air, he looked down at his navel-less torso and lack of genitalia. His body spun and dry-heaved. Then, his legs failed him.
Sizzling, the logo arose from Adam’s guts. Its clock had hit zero; final stage initiated.
MR lit its laser.
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