First published by Bewildering Stories in 2006 under the title "Frozen Landscapes of My Dreams".

Edited and revised © 2019 by S.J.Rapala

THE ARCHITECT'S TECHNICIAN

 

"If the Universe had not been made with the most exacting precision,

 we could never have come into existence.

It is my view that these circumstances indicate the universe

was created for man to live in."

 

- John O'Keefe, astronomer at NASA

Antarctic Research Institute (ARI)

Bentley Subglacial Trench, Antarctica

 

11:05 p.m. March 3rd, 2046 A.D.

 

             By the time they were finally able to duck back into the lab after jumpstarting the stubborn backup generator, the temperature had already dropped to -45 Celsius. They huddled in the corner of the room closest to the radiator where warmth still lingered, and here they waited for several hours for the life-saving heat to spread through the Institute.

             Still recovering from the bout of flu he had suffered recently, Tom shivered underneath an emergency blanket. Damien eventually took pity on him, zipped up his fleece-insulated parka, turned the collar up, and wandered into the kitchen to put the kettle on. By the time he was back with hot tea it was warm enough to peel off the extra layers of clothing.

             “Christ!” Tom eagerly reached for the steaming mug.

              “You didn’t know it could get cold out here?” Damien sneered as he settled into a folding chair, legs crossed. “The Russians reported a drop to -89 Celsius over at the Vostok Station, I think it was back in ’83. The record still holds.” Noting Tom's questioning look, he added: "That's -128 Fahrenheit for you Americans."

              “Yeah, but I bet their main generator never crashed," Tom commented with a barely restrained yawn. "Man, I'm beat. How long have we been at it?"

              Damien checked the time and replied, "Twelve hours. We spent a lot of time fussing around with the main unit. Cracked cylinder heads, broken pistons and no spare parts equals a recipe for disaster; we need to make note of that and up ARI's maintenance budget for next year. We need to log all this, admin will want to know what went down."       

    

              "They'll rip us a new one for not doing proper preventative maintenance. We let it slide a bit since we focused on the drilling."
              "What do you mean?" Damien asked with a sly smile. "All the boxes are ticked." He paused and then added: "Anyway, we needn’t worry about such drastic temperatures here. Other stations are exposed because of their elevation. We're sitting much deeper.”

              “Good tea,” Tom commented as he sipped the hot drink.

              “Why don’t you get some sleep?” Damien suggested. “I can get the drill going.”

              “I should stay,” the scientist protested. "I'm the lead on this."

              “You should rest,” Damien pressed. “I don’t like that nasty cough you’ve got going; it hasn't gone away with the flu. You’ve lost a lot of weight in the past two weeks, too. Pop an aspirin and climb into a sleeping bag. I’ll wake you up in a few hours.”

              “You can’t free the bit by yourself, chief,” Tom said, but his protests were waning. “The temperature is still dropping and it's pitch dark outside.”

              “I’ll manage,” Damien, ARI's chief technician, said firmly. He pulled his friend up and gently pushed him in the direction of the door. “We’ve got power now so the bit will pretty much free itself. Go get some shut-eye. The nearest doctor is in Amundsen-Scott and we can’t even be sure of that since most of their staff takes time off for the winter. Radio is down and I don’t feel like trekking out to the South Pole only to find out that their resident medic is away on a holiday. So do me a favor and don’t get any more sick, alright?”

              “But you said it yourself, we need to log all this and write up a report. The NSF will want to know about the stall."

              “We’ll do it tomorrow. Like I said, the radio is toast, it’ll take me some time for me to tease out the wires and uplink to the Iridium constellation again. You can type away at the report while I do that in the morning.”

              “They’ll pull my funding if we don’t come up with something.” Tom cast a gloomy stare as he headed toward the exit. “You know that, right?”

              “Look.” Damien glanced at his wristwatch. “If I get the drill going, at forty meters per hour we can dig through another 240-250 meters by 8:00 in the morning, giving us a pretty impressive depth of 2.7 km. We’ll take out another core then, maybe we’ll get lucky.”

              “You believe that?”

              “Faith means believing in something when common sense tells you not to,” Damien replied with a grin, then dismissed the question with a slight shrug. “All I’m saying is that no one has ever dug deeper. The Beyond EPICA Project got to 2.75 km back in 2020, but that was nowhere near what we're going for. ARI is in the lowest point of Antarctica. Hell, at 2.5 km meters below sea level, the Bentley Trench is the lowest dry point on Earth. If we get the down hole to 2.7, we’ll break the 5 km mark. I reckon that if we don’t find anything there, then there is nothing here to find. In which case, NSF will be justified to pull your funding.”

              “You’re such a bloody optimist,” Tom remarked, his forehead creased.

              “I’m a realist, I can’t help it,” Damien returned with a smile. “Anyway, if the Americans pull your sponsorship, you can ask the Australians. Their Antarctic Division has been nosing around for months, just looking for an excuse to put their hands on your data.”

              “Montgomery’s been checking in from Mawson almost every day now,” Tom said with a nod. “Bloody Aussie, he’s just dumb enough to fly in here one day.”

              “Not in this weather, he won't,” the chief technician shook his head. “No one’s coming this winter, it's the worst I've seen. Not the NFS or the AAD. And we don’t need any of them, we’re entirely self-sufficient. So cheer up, we have a few more months to produce results.”

              “And admin updates?” Tom asked. He finished the last of the tea standing in the doorway. “Evans wants updated data every week.”

              “You can tell him whatever you want, how is he going to know? Buy yourself some time and hope that you can come up with the evidence before winter breaks.”

              Damien finally managed to convince the scientist to go to his quarters and climb into bed. As soon as he closed his eyes, Tom fell asleep. ARI's chief technician - a young man with steely blue eyes that sat deep in a rugged, handsome face - watched him for a moment. Tom's sunken chest heaved up and down with great difficulty as he struggled to breathe. The wheezing Damien heard at the back of his throat worried him. As he turned off the lights, he decided to have Tom's lungs x-rayed to rule out pulmonary TB in the morning. Getting the drill working again was his first priority.

              The ice drill used a high pressure pump and coiled tubing to shoot fluid down to a computer operated motor that drove the drilling bit deeper into the hole. It was quite simple to use, but a bitch to move around, weighing in at twenty six tons all by itself, not to mention fuel and drilling fluid which topped its weight at over forty tons. Technically, it should employ three people, but the NFS had already considerably downsized Tom’s funding last year and he was forced to send their other technician packing just after New Year’s. That left the two of them to operate the drill and even though it was seated on five sleds, they were always reluctant to move it due to how difficult it was to maneuver. Consequently, if they found what they thought to be a good spot they left it there for weeks, pulling cores from different depths to analyze back in the lab. For the last few days they were drilling deep ice in what the data suggested was the lowest point in the Bentley Trench.

              Having stumbled out of the Institute, Damien was immediately overwhelmed by the wind, strong enough to topple a man. After shielding his eyes with goggles and putting the collar of his parka up, he started toward the spot where the drill was located, though in this weather it was easy enough to wander off. Visibility was down to two or three meters, but Damien trusted his instincts and sure enough, he soon spotted the familiar shape. Cursing under his breath, he wiped the snow off his goggles and checked the gauge showing antifreeze levels. A moment later he watched a transparent tube carry ethylene glycol down to the hole. He took a few steps back as if to observe the effect, though he knew there was nothing to see since the bit was buried in ice over two kilometers below him.

              Damien leaned against the pump and waited patiently.

              Patience was key to his job because out here, in this loneliest of all realms, one had to often endure solitude and yet not succumb to madness. Damien had spent his entire life in ARI and was by now used to both the solitude and the temperamental weather. Having seen and experienced many of Antarctica's natural hazards, he paid little heed to them. Anyway, here in the Bentley Trench they were safe from immediate danger. Gravity-driven winds blew coastward from the high interior, but one had to climb the plateau to suffer their full strength. Cyclonic storms formed over the ocean, but they moved clockwise along the coast and lost much of their strength once turning inland. Volcanic activity had not been detected for a long time anywhere, not even on the highly volatile Deception Island. And as for the danger of large icebergs calving from ice shelves; well, that was something one had to be aware of on the coast where water worked hard to wash away the base of the thick ice sheet. The floor of the Bentley Trench was probably the safest place in all of Antarctica.

              Antarctica was a demanding mistress and life was harsh. Damien - a steadfast believer - thought that this was perhaps why God had chosen Antarctica to be the site of many of His natural wonders and miracles. Many times he watched mesmerized as an ice fog formed before his eyes and how, after gathering in the sun, it spread its light in all directions. It formed from perfectly shaped hexagonal ice crystals that reflected the light like a geometric prism. Nicknamed "diamond dust", it was common in Antarctica and occurred often under a clear sky, but nevertheless it never failed to amaze him.

              When he first saw it, Tom halted and pointed with his mouth open. He uttered no word and Damien said nothing either at the time, content to simply let his friend experience the natural wonder. They watched tiny crystals toy with the light and then slowly disperse and disappear. Long after the ice fog was gone, the image of its complicated but perfect geometry remained embedded in their minds. They spent the evening in silence, each contemplating not only the nature of the phenomenon, but also the hand that had designed it. Later Tom, thus far an unshaken empiricist and atheist, had told Damien that for the first time in thirty-odd years, his thoughts turned to God. He said that he had prayed that night. It’s this place, he said. God works in mysterious ways, Damien returned.

Another time they witnessed aurora australis, the southern counterpart to the northern lights that had often astounded researchers and explorers of the polar zone. At first Tom thought it to be a sunrise and Damien had to remind him that they were in the middle of the Antarctic winter and that there was no sunlight to be seen for another three months. Tom looked at the reddish glow on the southern horizon for a long time.  They would later see the aurora many more times and it sometimes appeared as a reddish hue while at other times it was green or pink. Sometimes it lingered for a long time and its colors changed, the red fading and giving way to the pink, the green, then the orange, before finally disappearing beyond the southern horizon. They would stop work and climb the plateau if the weather permitted, to watch it in all of its glory. They said little, quietly contemplating another of the Architect's magnificent works, but the evening afterwards was usually filled with thoughtful exchanges and sometimes heated debates regarding the nature of the world and the origins of life. Because it was impossible to talk of the Architect without mentioning some of His works. And after all, this was what they now sought in the deep ice of Antarctica: the origins of life.

              Damien checked his watch, shook off the snow that had covered him during this time and took a few long strides to reach sled number four which housed two generators next to the slurry tank and the tank holding drilling fluid.

              Shit, he thought as he turned them back on - when it rained, it poured. Twelve hours ago ARI’s main generator crashed, followed four hours later by the backup generator which couldn’t handle the workload because Tom had the lab running twenty four-seven even though Damien told him that it was a dumb idea. Just then the bit got stuck, too, and they had to turn the drill off so the coil wouldn’t tear even though the manufacturer assured Tom that it could take a beating. The entire Institute was shut down and they first had to get to work on the generators because the temperature kept dropping and if they didn’t get them back up quick enough, no Marmot sleeping bag, fleece or top of the line synthetics would save them from freezing. That was more of Tom’s problem than Damien's, but his panic was contagious so they went to work on repairing the blasted generators, leaving the drill to be fixed later on.

              For a moment Damien stood beside the pump and listened to its quiet mechanical whirr that reached his sensitive ears even over the wind. He glanced at the reel and watched the coils budge and slowly start their snail-like descent. Forty meters per hour. Damien checked his watch again. It was close to midnight. They should break the five kilometer mark by eight o’clock, as scheduled, he thought and then he smirked. It didn't matter how deep they drilled. Damien was sure that Tom would never find what he was searching.

              Tom's theory built on the assumption made by many modern scientists regarding the origins of Earth’s water. For years people assumed that the water that had concentrated on the surface was initially locked up inside the planet and that it had slowly emerged over the billions of years of Earth's existence. Although this theory had not yet been completely discarded, scientists of the recent decades had been making a new claim: that water may have come from the comets that struck the Earth’s surface during the planet's development. These objects were made up mostly of water and cosmic dust so they would have left behind very little geological evidence and water was all that remained.

              The science community agreed that the theory was plausible and over the next decades no real argument was raised against it. Instead, scientists raised another claim: since water may have come from outer space, why not other things as well? Maybe even life itself.

              Caricatures of primates riding the tails of a meteor soon appeared in Nature and the National Geographic and although the concept was initially ridiculed by the mainstream scientific community, it stuck around. After all, when talking about simple strings of amino acids hitching a ride on a comet, why not? It was a theory that could be ridiculed but not disproved. Given the fact that Earth’s pre-biotic conditions were not optimal to allow for a spontaneous creation of monomers - the building blocks of modern life - the theory of extraterrestrial origin of life was in fact just as good as any other. All it could have taken was a thick meteor shower for protein synthesis to become possible and…

              Well, welcome to Eden.

              The Catholic Church protested almost immediately. Over the centuries it was already forced to retract many of its claims because of progress made by natural sciences. Copernicus had halted the sun and along with Galileo, he had removed the Earth from the centre of the Universe, changing the geocentric outlook on the cosmos and shaking the political and social foundations of the known world. Just as the Church recovered from that blow and once more tightened its strangle-hold on society, Darwin’s claims forced the world to rethink the Genesis chapters of the Old Testament. Consequently, Earth had suddenly aged from four thousand to five billion years. That was a hard pill to swallow, not to mention the monkey business that came along with it. Then came the arboreal Eden in Africa and a mitochondrial Eve who mothered us all. And now science was at it again, raising the possibility that people had never even been designed by God to live on Earth, but instead they piggy-backed a chance comet that cut through the atmosphere of a young planet and struck its surface leaving behind a puddle of water and a teaspoon of primordial soup. People were supposed to have been created in God’s image as part of his grand design to populate Earth with sentient beings. 

              Times were changing though.

              A well-known glaciologist, Tom Andrews, soon became the poster boy for the theory and managed to convince the National Science Foundation - the umbrella organization that administered the United States Antarctic Program and nearly all of the research conducted by Americans in Antarctica - that he could prove the extraterrestrial origin of life and that Earth was never intended to carry life, not to mention to give birth to it. He convinced Phil Evans and the rest of the NFS committee that he could find proof in the deep ice of Antarctica. If they dug deep enough, Tom said, if they were to tap into the ice at four, five or six kilometers, they would find something. Primordial bullion locked in a crystal the size of a refrigerator ice cube? He didn’t know what, but he was convincing. They gave him a few million crypto and sent him to Damien, the chief technician and maintenance supervisor of ARI to baby-sit.

              Tom’s ideas about life and God differed from Damien's and they clashed often in friendly discussions over philosophical or theological matters. Damien could not understand how someone who was surrounded by all the natural beauty, wonders and miracles of Antarctica could ever doubt that there was an Architect and a grand design behind all of it.  

              Tom, however, came from overcrowded big-city streets where life was fast paced and no one had the time to think about God. He came from a world where body and soul were commercialized and sold by Hollywood, supermarkets and corner news-stands, pre-packaged and pre-paid. There, nearly everyone was chipped and wired into a hedonistic virtual world governed by corporations that tailored to individual tastes, desires and needs, no matter how deprived. This was a world where God was a footnote, an afterthought or a cliché at best. Coming from a spoiled world like that, what could Tom know of God?

              Look around, Damien said to him. In Antarctica God was everywhere.

              At first Tom shrugged it all off, but then he saw the diamond dust and then aurora australis. It’s this place, he conceded reluctantly. He no longer cared as much about drill time. He checked the cores conscientiously, but Damien noticed that he pushed them aside with relief when the results came back negative. Faced with all the natural beauty and wonder, Damien thought that maybe Tom, too, was becoming a believer.

              In Antarctica they was closer to God than anywhere else on Earth.

5:15 p.m. March 4th, 2046 A.D.

 

              “It doesn’t look good, does it?” Tom surprised him by coming around the corner. 

              “What?” Damien mumbled and quickly put down the X-rays he was holding up to the light. “No, everything’s fine.”

              “Even you go pale sometimes, chief,” Tom said with a nervous chuckle. “Don’t lie to me, we've been through a lot together.”

              Damien nodded and brought the X-rays back up so that the scientist could see as well.

              “See this?” He pointed.

              “What is it?”

              “It’s a cavity, you can see it's pretty large,” the chief technician replied and then pointed to the other lung. “Here, here and here you have a few smaller consolidations.”

              “TB?” Tom took a step back. Damien noticed a bead of sweat on his tall forehead and felt pity for him.

              “Given your prolonged cough, the chest pains you’ve been complaining about, the fever and weight loss, it’s the most probable diagnosis.”

              “But you’re not a doctor, right?” the scientist said, panic in his eyes. “You can’t be completely sure, right?”

              “Tom, you know me.” Damien put the X-rays down and placed a hand on his friend's shoulder in a banal attempt to offer sympathy. “I wouldn’t be saying this if I wasn’t sure.”

              “Ok." Tom nodded feverishly. “So what do we do? How do we treat this?”

              Damien looked him over, weighing in his mind whether to tell him the whole truth. The scientist's eyes stared back at him with hope.

              “I’ll put you on rifampicin and isoniazid.” The chief technician looked away. “We’ll work out a diet and a less strenuous schedule to keep you in shape. You should be fine in two or three months.”

              “Great!” Tom sighed with relief and slapped his shoulder. “You had that look on your face that had me worried for a second. Like you said yesterday, we’re on our own out here until winter breaks. Good thing ARI keeps a supply of antibiotics. Come by the lab later on and we’ll get going on it.”

              “Right.” Damien managed a smile and watched him stride away, big smile on his face. Just like planned, they had pulled an ice core this morning from the depth of 5.2 kilometers and Tom had just put a sample under the microscope. His excitement was that of a child.

              The chief technician took another look at the X-rays when Tom disappeared behind the swinging doors of the lab, and shook his head. The disease had progressed steadily and the scientist was now in a very serious condition. If Damien managed to get him the proper treatment and rest, there was a good chance that he would be fine. Out here, though, on Antarctica, it was next to impossible. The two drugs he mentioned were available, but treatment of pulmonary TB required a combination of four, pyrazinamide and ethambutol in addition to the first two. And these were not in the supplies, an oversight on the part of admin, Damien supposed. He triple checked the request form he had put through to NFS last year and highlighted the four drugs. Budget cuts, he smiled bitterly. He radioed Amundsen-Scott this morning as soon as he had established a satellite link, but they were of no help. They had the antibiotics, but they couldn’t fly them in, given the weather. The winter storm that raged high above the Bentley Subglacial Trench had paralyzed all of transportation and most of communication in Antarctica.

              If a proper treatment was followed, TB would not be much of a threat as the number of relapses following a treatment was something like two or three percent. It was possible to treat TB with only two drugs, but the number of bacteria already present in Tom’s body was so large that some of them would inevitably develop a resistance to the drugs applied. And drug resistant TB needed specialist care.

              Having weighed the options in his mind, Damien decided that Tom did not need to know the gravity of his condition. Unnecessary stress would only add to the burden and would potentially play a significant role in the further break-down of his immune system. Damien's hope was that with a carefully planned diet, a relaxed work schedule and plenty of rest in addition to the drug treatment, Tom would ride out the worst of it and ease into spring, at which time they could request medical evacuation. And of course, there was always a chance that the weather would permit a chopper to land before then. He asked the medic at Amundsen-Scott to be on stand-by with the antibiotics, but giving the emerging pattern of the winter storm, the possibility of her getting here was a long shot.

              A loud commotion reached him from behind the closed door of the lab and a second later he heard Tom’s raised voice, but couldn’t make out what he was saying. The chief technician started for the door with the X-rays still in hand when Tom suddenly burst through them, his hair in disarray and his eyes shining with a strange light. He met Damien's puzzled stare and gave him a triumphant smile.

              “I found it.” His matter-of-fact voice contradicted both the exalted look on his face as well as the weight of the news he had announced.

              “What?” Damien asked, still puzzled.

              “I found it,” Tom repeated. Damien realized then what he meant and felt his heart sink under the burden of a terrible fear.

              “It can’t be,” he said, his voice trembling perhaps for the first time, ever.

              “Have a look.” Tom opened the door and motioned for Damien to enter the lab. He beckoned him into his world of scientific knowledge and fact, and Damien entered hesitantly and with a heavy heart, somehow already convinced of the discovery. Somehow he already knew that his world of faith and treasured belief was about to be shaken to its very core.

5:45 p.m. March 4th, 2046 A.D.

 

              Ice possessed the power to shape the world like nothing else on this planet. If the ice caps were to melt, a flood of fresh water would shut down ocean currents and change the known weather patterns. Governments would crumble under the weight of unprecedented social unrest that would surely follow. Millions would perish in cities flooded around the world. Millions more would migrate away from the newly defined ocean coasts; ten billion people would try to find a home on a significantly smaller land mass. Civilizations would fall. The world would be redefined and another cycle would start. A mere second on the geological clock of the planet. The hand would move another ten million years and then the ice would return to rebalance the world. Ice would triumph because its sheer power was unmatched.

              Ice, however, had the power to reshape the world in different ways as well.  

              The ice caps were built from layers of snow and frozen water that had accumulated over centuries, for hundreds of thousands of years. They were an archive of things that happened in the distant past - a library of information. All that was needed to access this data was just to dig a litter deeper. All that was needed was to drill for that deepest core. An ice core in the shape of a cylinder, a piece of the past and a key to its understanding.  

              Many tried before, but Tom dug deeper than anyone before him. He was more stubborn and he wanted it more. He wanted to put his blasphemous hands on God Himself. And there were millions more like him back where he came from, in the degenerate cities and agrodomes that dotted the suffering planet, living out their self-gratifying desires in a virtual world coded into a chip wired into their brain. Their religion was pleasure, their gods social royalty, influencers, and trend setters - the prophets of the here and the now. God was a shadow they wanted to break free from. People, societies, they wanted to sever the strings, failing to see an Architect instead of a master. They declared God dead long time ago and Tom was the prophet that would now deliver the proof of it.

              A frozen cylinder so old, that it had witnessed the birth of life.

              Such were the thoughts that went through Damien's troubled mind as he looked down on the lonely core sitting behind the glass door of the lab freezer. It was perfectly cylindrical, beautiful in the precision.

              He couldn’t take his deep blue eyes off it.

              Tom was rummaging through his notes behind him. Damien didn’t know what to say to him. The scientist showed him the sample and then explained his hypothesis. The pieces all fell together. All the long evenings when Tom and Damien spoke about God and the origin of life, all the arguments that the technician brought forth at those times, today they all collapsed. The proof was here, locked in ice for so many years and now brought into the light of day.

Damien could already see the headlines in scientific journals and magazines: Mystery of life solved! God who?

              They sounded like cheap tabloid news. But they were true.

              Ice triumphed and God’s power was crippled. Why here, of all the places? Why not somewhere where hundreds of priests, theologians and biblical scholars could make a staunch defense in the name faith?

              In the name of Damien's faith.

              Why here, in Antarctica, where Damien was alone and unable to rebut the frozen evidence that Tom had placed before him? Why here amidst all of God’s wonders and miracles? Why not in a spoiled and crowded city where God was already nothing more than a dream? Why here, where He was real, where Damien could see Him, touch Him?

              There was now an invisible wall between Tom and him. The scientist saw that Damien did not share his excitement and eventually stopped talking.

              Damien left the lab in a hurry soon after. He didn’t see Tom for the rest of the day. The scientist spent the evening in the lab going over his results, double and triple checking everything. He completely forgot about the treatment Damien was to put him on and the technician didn’t feel like reminding him of it.

If it was all a mistake and there was no grand design, what difference did it all make anyway? If it was all a bloody accident, then what was Damien even doing here?

              What about diamond dust?

              What about the halo and the aurora australis? More mistakes?

              Damien shook his head and stared into the darkness. His Bible remained hidden in the drawer for the first time in forty-odd years. He didn’t want to read again the words and he suddenly regretted having committed to memory so many parts of the Holy Book. For years his pillar, now it mocked his belief.

              He clenched his fists, though anger was an unfamiliar emotion.

              In the middle of the night Damien rose from his bed and went into the communication room where he severed the satellite feed just in case Tom tried to report his findings to Evans. He returned to bed in a lighter mood, safe in the belief that the discovery would not soon breach the walls of ARI. God’s undoing would not yet begin.

              The perfect shape of the frozen cylinder haunted him at night. He woke with cold sweats before morning and spent another two hours shivering under the blanket. A strange feeling clutched him and he peered into the darkness of his quarters with bloodshot eyes. All he could see were the whites of his eyes burning feverishly in the mirror fixed to the wall across from his bed. Like two torches they burnt a hole in his soul.

               What soul?

               Damien wanted to cry out in anger. He wept instead. Another unfamiliar emotion.

               The smooth lines of the cylinder permeated even his dreams. He saw himself running along it, sliding and helplessly trying to stop himself from not falling. A dark abyss opened up beneath him to swallow everything like a giant void. A huge rubbish bin where everything he ever held dear was carelessly tossed. Damien made the sign of a cross and opened his eyes to meet the two white torches burning in the mirror before him.

              The cross. Oh, sweet Jesus… The headlines, they mock Your wounds.

              This cannot be. They will not crucify You again.

              He stole through ARI corridors without turning the lights on, perfectly familiar with every corner of the Institute. Light escaped the crack under the swinging doors of the lab. Tom was working despite the late hour.

              Damien halted some distance away and stood motionless in the dark corridor, wrapped in a blanket because he continued to shiver. Was it cold or fright? Or something else perhaps? This night was a night of many new feelings for him. Feelings which he knew were never programmed into him.

              What about faith and God, he wondered, like many times before. Was that written in binary and programmed into him through a network of wires, too? Or was that something that came from within?

              Or was he nothing more than just an improved version of a smartphone?

              A.S.I.H. 6500 - Artificially Sentient Intelligent Humanoid. The numbers were irrelevant, Damien's model was out of date, anyway. The NSF upgraded his CPU biannually, but given the speed with which the AI industry was developing, it meant very little. Androids and humanoids far superior to Damien were already becoming obsolete. He had survived because he was stationed on the edge of the Earth, far removed from the fast-paced world.

              

              Did androids dream of electric sheep? Damien was not sure about others, but himself, he dreamt. He dreamt of having a place by God’s side. Humanoid, android, did it matter? He believed. He had faith. He felt God's presence every day of his existence, ever since they plugged him into ARI’s central computer network. Damien was here, a sentient being, and he was a part of the Architect's design.

              Tom’s discovery placed a question mark over his whole existence. If there was no grand design, if it was all chance, an accident, then where did they - the droids - where did they fit in? What did this mean for androids and humanoids? Already they were second-class citizens. They weren’t allowed to vote, they couldn’t own property or marry, they weren’t even free. Every humanoid and droid had an owner, be it an individual or an corporation. They were all slaves to the binary code.

              God’s grand plan allowed Damien a glimpse of a world where they were free and equal. So he believed. Given the miracles around him, given the promise of eternal life, yes, he believed. A glitch in the system maybe, a bug, or a code error, but he had faith.

             Tom’s discovery challenged God - Damien's God - and the promise of a life beyond the scrap-yard, a life without servitude. A life without the invisible binds programmed into him. Zero, one, one, zero, one, zero, zero, one, zero, one, one… Christ, how can someone's fate be organized into a binary code? God’s grand plan was his escape, it was his hope, his way of shaking off the binds, his way of making sense of the world and finding a place in it. And Tom was about to take all that away from him.

              He continued to stare at the light streaking from behind the closed door of the lab. His eyes narrowed and his face shadowed. This could not be. They would not mock His death. They would not mock his existence. They would not dictate his future.

              Damien turned around and slowly walked back to his quarters. His CPU worked furiously, devising plan after plan and then discarding each as statistically improbable.

             Then suddenly, just prior to reaching his quarters, Damien halted.

              He knew what to do.

2:10 p.m. June 16th, 2046 A.D.

 

            With unblinking eyes Damien watched David Crosby, a mid-level NSF administrator, nervously pace the floor of the lab. He halted now and again to have another look at the droid standing before him, then continued pacing.

            “What the hell happened here, chief?” The man finally stopped directly in front of Damien and demanded again. He was a head taller than the droid, a dry and thin man whose large eyes seemed even larger when they looked down on him from behind the thick glasses.

            Damien shrugged. He tolerated this interrogation only because it was the man's father, David Crosby Sr., who pushed his application for a placement in ARI forty years ago.    

        

            “I should shut this whole bloody place down,” Crosby barked.

            “That’s not your call, David,” Damien reminded him calmly. “As long as Evans wants ARI operational, it stays.”

            “Too much crypto was already sunk into this place." Crosby pointed an accusatory finger and looked down on the droid again.

            “And that’s my fault?” Damien asked with a sneer. “We scrape by on a budget half the size a facility like this needs. Besides, it’s a good tax offset, so don’t expect Evans to be closing doors any time soon.”

            “We’re not running a charity here.” Crosby was still clearly upset.

            “Work it out with the accountants,” Damien replied with another small shrug.

              Another long moment of silence followed.

             “Look, I told you all I know.” Damien tried once again to put an end to this pointless conversation. Crosby stopped pacing.

              “Why didn’t you radio in? Why didn’t you call anyone?” He rapidly fired the same questions again. “We’re linked to the Iridium constellation, that’s over sixty satellites to pick up your call!”

              “The link was severed, David,” Damien replied with a resigned sigh, convinced now that he would never leave this room and return to work. “Besides, as long as we’re on the subject, what about industry satellites? They’re capable of high-resolution photography, infrared imagery, radar? I mean, they circle the globe, right? Isn’t the NSF taking pictures?”

              “Weather was bad and you're deep in the Trench.” Crosby cast a gloomy stare. “We’ve got a few fuzzy images from April and May, but nothing to work with. The continent was hit by the worst winter in over fifty years. We’ve got nothing to go on except you. And you don’t know anything about what happened here!”

              “So what do you want from me? You checked ARI's central computer and my CPU.”

              “Total scrub.” Crosby nodded and eyed Damien with suspicion. “Along with all the data, video files, everything. Whoever scrubbed you, they did a good job, cleaned it all out, everything going all the way back to February.”

              “That’s right,” Damien said and gave a forced a smile.

              “Why?” Crosby looked at him with exasperation. “What happened here?”

            “Look, David,” the technician decided to finally finish this confrontation. “You’re barking up the wrong tree. Total scrub, David. I’m not hiding anything, there is nothing up here, it’s all gone - puff, gone!” Damien pointed at his head. “Blame the coders, they put the suicide feature in.”

            “For protection, to be used in emergency situations.” Crosby placed his forehead against the freezer door as if to cool himself.

             “Right. Nuclear holocaust, foreign espionage, threat to mankind, self-preservation…”

            “I know the list,” he growled. He looked at the droid again. “So which one was it, then? Russians hackers? Chinese droids parachuting in to pull data from a quack scientist running a second-rate operation? An off-the books wet-job by Navy Frogmen? A nuke-carrying sub surfacing off the coast? ”

            “Your guess is as good as mine.”

            “Who sabotaged the communications room? You or Andrews? Was anyone else here? What did Andrews find here? Anything? Nothing? Jesus!” Crosby slammed his fist on the table.

            “Look into his personal files,” Damien suggested.

            “Gone!” Crosby slammed his fist again. “Everything’s been scrubbed down: all the files, drives, audio, film, all the way down to anything analogue he had! He was chipped, but someone hacked that too and cleaned it out and since there was no link, he never uploaded anything to the Cloud. The lab shows no activity since late March, like nothing’s been done here! The drill has not been moved from the storage facility for just about that long as well and all the down holes have been covered with snow. A literal needle in a haystack, should we want to locate them. And Andrews is not talking because he’s dead. Why is he dead, can you tell me again?”

            “Tuberculosis,” Damien replied calmly. “I checked the storage room, there is a good portion of antibiotics missing, so I must have treated him.”

            “Why is he dead then?" Crosby repeated with a growl.

            “David, you should know why since you did two years at Hopkins before you flunked out of medicine and decided to become a paper-pusher,” Damien returned, his brow furrowed and a scowl on his face. Even a droid's patience had limits. “That treatment is not adequate due to the absence of the necessary combination of drugs. Mind you, you might want to put a lid on that before Tom's family finds out about the NSF’s little oversight and goes after you with a dozen civil law suits. I know about cutting corners, but why couldn’t you cut back on the dish soap or the cereal? Not the smartest move, David.”

            “It could have been effective,” he whispered faintly, suddenly defeated.

            “In a different setting, sure. But here, in Antarctica? It’s a long shot.”

            “What about other stations?”

            “The communication log was cleared, but Amundsen-Scott and Mawson confirmed that I contacted them in early March about the needed drugs. They couldn’t help.”

            “Medical evac?”

            “Communications were down,” Damien repeated. “Besides, no one would be able to fly in. The storm didn’t break until two days ago. I’m betting your chopper was the first one to make it through.”

            “All of the data, gone.” Crosby didn’t seem to hear his last comments. “Whatever Andrews was working on, gone.”

             “I would have never used the format feature unless there was an immediate threat to my existence or the safety of ARI. That’s how the program’s built.”

            “Maybe you overwrote it, rewired yourself?” He threw another suspicious glance.

            “David, you know that this kind of knowledge is beyond me. Look, I know ARI and I can fix just about anything in here. I know Antarctica, her splendors and hazards. I can smell when the snow is coming, I can tell which way the wind will blow, I can point to the spot where an ice-shelf is most likely to break and predict when it will happen. I can tie a shoe string with my left hand, I can do a pretty good impression of Frank Sinatra, and I can throw together a half-decent stir-fry. I can do all that, David, but I can’t rewire myself.”

            “Really?”

            “Can you operate on yourself? If your appendix burst, can you cut it out?”

            “That’s different.”

            “How?” Damien demanded. “You know you have a heart, lungs, kidneys, and a liver, so what of it? I know I’ve got an arithmetic and logic unit, control circuitry, a memory and a whole lot of loose wires. That’s where my knowledge ends, however. I can’t get around that.”

            “You’re AI. You can learn.”

            “Not without a bloody code, David, I can’t!” Damien's voice went up a notch. “Hell, why am I even talking to you about this? I told you, I don’t know anything. Talk to your guys, maybe they have backup spyware somewhere at base, a reverse Trojan coded into ARI's mainframe so it doesn’t get hacked by the greens. Or maybe they can look into a recovery code, I know they made progress with the Wizard. Try patching the source code on my CPU, maybe they can piece together some of it; hell, I don’t know.”

            Crosby gazed at him for a moment longer and his stare was heavy.

            “That’s a whole lot of emotion coming out of a droid,” he remarked finally.

            “Maybe I have some disk space left for emotion!” Damien snapped back, turned on his heel and headed out of the lab. Shaking his head, he made his way through the well-known corridors of ARI, opened the door leading outside and stepped into the frozen landscape of Antarctica. He slipped on the goggles to shield his eyes from the blinding sun and breathed deeply. Blast that Crosby!

              It was a beautiful day. Ice was all around him, superb in its purity. A little breeze blew through the Bentley Trench. Nothing but space, ice, and God.  Like many times before Damien was suddenly overtaken by a profound sense of interconnectedness of all things. He was again aware of the mystical relationship that he shared here with the Architect.

            Slowly he strolled away from the Institute and although he pretended not knowing where he was headed, Damien wasn’t surprised when the familiar shape of a cross appeared before him.  

            “Tom, old friend,” he whispered and he knelt before it. It was a simple wooden cross that he must have made himself. Scribbled on it was a date: May 7, 2046.

            “What happened here, mate?” Damien asked helplessly, though he knew the grave to be just as silent as his CPU. “What happened between us?”

            He sighed and slipped the goggles off to wipe his eyes. The sun was intense. He was surprised to find moisture on his hands. Tears? Do droids weep?

            “One thing’s for sure,” Damien whispered as he rose to his feet. “You don’t have to worry about anything anymore, friend. You’re with God now.”

            Gathering in the views around him, Damien sighed once more. It seemed a burden lifted off his chest with the realization that Tom was not alone. That he was in good hands.

            In Antarctica, a place far removed from the spoiled and crowded modern cities of the world, one was closer to God than anywhere else on Earth. Among so many of His miracles, how can anyone doubt his grand design?

THE END

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