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Orbit

Thup…Fwp………Thup…Fwp………Thup…Fwp…


The tennis ball bounced cleanly off the wall and sailed back into his hand. He threw it again. 


Thup…Fwp………Thup…Fwp…


All around him, nothing else could be heard but the hum of machinery and the cold blank emptiness of space. His eyes wandered. The walls were painted and marked with several years’ worth of artwork, notes, messages, personal ramblings, and general nonsense one comes up with in isolation. He was lying on the floor, torso propped up on a fuzzy pillow, facing one of the four walls of his prison. The wall he was bouncing the ball off of was actually his favorite part of the whole station: a full-pane observation port. Built out of a transparent metal, it took up the entire wall and gave him an extraordinary view of hope. 


Earth. 


As he sent the ball sailing once again toward the pane, he mused to himself about his predicament. What else was there to do? 


“Daniel Thatcher.” a voice spoke out above his thoughts. 


He didn’t start, nor did he respond. 


“Daniel Thatcher!” the voice echoed. 


Still no response. 


“Daniel. If you refuse to interact with me, I will be forced to revoke your viewport privileges.” 


“Thatch!” 


“No…” 


“Yes! I have told you a thousand times before, you useless pile of ones and zeros, call me Thatch!” 


“Daniel, I am required by programming to address all detainees by their proper names, for the full duration of their sentence. ‘Thatch’ is not your given name, so I am afraid I will be unable to acquiesce your request.” 


Thatch did not move his head, but rather flicked his eyes toward the overhead speaker up above. “May I remind you who is here for who? I’m the human with psychological needs. You’re just an artificially engineered personality, a disembodied voice designed to keep me sane during our little adventure. If my emotional health requires that you call me ‘Thatch’, then I guess you’d damn well better call me ‘Thatch’!” 


“…” 


“Well, Tech? What’s it gonna be?” Thatch huffed with an air of smug subdued victory. “And the viewport is not a privilege to be taken away. I’ve read the bylaws. You’ve got no right, nor ability, to take away my most prized possession.” 


“The viewport is not yours.” 


“Well, it’s not yours either!” Arguing was at least something to do. 


Tech was weary of this. Every day, it seemed like the same events played out. Daniel “Thatch” Thatcher woke up, ate breakfast, walked on his treadmill, perhaps lifted some weights, then set to whatever wiles he had planned for the day. Sometimes Thatcher doodled on the walls with markers. Other times he sang (his musical voice rather reminded the AI of a pair of feral cats having a marital dispute). And yet, still other times he might do as he was doing now: lying on the floor, tossing a ball against the viewport, and doing his best to ignore Tech. It was as close as Tech ever got to experiencing real human rage. Pity. 


There was a mechanical sigh. “Thatch.” 


Thatch smirked. “Yeah? What’s up, buddy?” 


“It is now day 1,015 of your three-year sentence. I thought perhaps you might like to discuss your feelings on the verdict once again. According to my records, we still appear to have gotten nowhere with your psychological reformation.” 


“Right you are, and I’d like it to stay that way.” 


“Thatch, this is part of your sentence. My purpose here is not only to look after you, but also to rehabilitate you. Normally, orbital reconditioning is a sentence reserved for crazed lunatics and mass murderers, but here we are. I may not understand the UN Security Council’s decision, yet I am obligated to carry out my programmed orders. In order to do that, I need you to cooperate. So please, for my sake, let’s talk…buddy.” 


Thatch got up, tossing the pillow behind him on the couch. Getting to his feet, he stepped over to the viewport directly. What lay before him could only have been properly described by a poet. At least that’s what Thatch thought to himself as he gazed out. The earth was half darkened, with a glorious crescent currently being graced with the blessings of dawn. Beyond that, the stars shone with a steady light, free from the wavering particles of atmosphere below which gave them a twinkly effect. Way out here, amidst the endless void, they shone like flying banners, sounding the coming of a glorious age to come! Or even an era of horrific nightmares. Thatch’s eyes flicked between them and the earth below. 


“Tech, if those fascist hardnoses down there really wanted me to talk about my feelings, they should have sent me an actual therapist. Instead, all they gave me was a whiny wet nurse. You understand I feel comfortable talking like this because you can’t truly feel insulted no matter what I say. No hard feelings I hope.” 


“None taken.” Tech responded sourly. Over time, warden AIs were built to morph to suit their detainee companions, in order to properly help them rehabilitate. In principle, it meant that his personality would be altered over time to one that could better handle his assigned detainee. In practice, this program being relatively new, it meant that along the way his personality encountered plenty of bumps in the road which denoted certain similarities with Daniel Thatcher’s own persona. Thatcher was a curious case, and his constant sour attitude was working its magic on Tech’s AI programming. More and more, the computer program felt himself shifting personality, beginning to match Thatcher’s sour attitude and sarcastic remarks. How lovely. No matter, the programming should eventually kick in full gear and set itself right. When that would be, he had no idea. For now, however, he would just have to endure. Great. 


He had at one point believed his purpose was to rehabilitate some insane psychopath, to achieve wonders of the mind, helping this person finally understand their deepest desires and motives that drove them to madness. Instead, he was paired with a different kind of lunatic. The unhelpful kind which refused to talk about anything helpful or conclusive. Nearly two and a half years of quality alone time together aboard their own personal space yacht, and they still made little to no progress on any front. 


But it wasn’t as if there were anywhere else to go, nor anything else to do. The small station that housed them was about thirty feet by twenty feet, with a couple rooms and basic living necessities. Thatch had been allowed several things to entertain himself with, and Tech was now very bored of watching him draw on walls, stack houses of cards, and toss that stupid ball against the walls. 


“Thatch.” Tech applied all of the patience he could muster. He hadn’t much left, and feared that if something didn’t happen soon, he would be the first case of insanity found in an artificial intelligence unit. “You cannot possibly find this enjoyable anymore. I certainly do not. You were placed here for a reason. Look out there along the horizon. What do you see?” 

“Tech, I have very little tolerance for rhetorical questions, so I don’t see any purpose in pointing out what we both already know is there.” 


“Oh my God, just tell me what you see, you steaming pile of fecal matter!” Ouch. A speed bump. That was the most “Thatch” thing he had ever said. 


“Fine. Others. I see others, Tech. Lots of ‘em. They’re all over the place, orbiting this sorry rock just like me. Why, I don’t know. They have their reasons, same as I don’t have mine. Your point?” 


“That’s just my point, Thatch. They have their purpose for being here. They know what they did to deserve such a fate. They are all thinking about it twenty-four-seven, rounding the earth on their own path towards healing, while we are still back in square one. How does that make you feel, Thatch? To be last in line? To be at the bottom rung, even amongst the criminals way out here?” 


“Kinda gotta admit, it feels great!” 


Oh good, Tech mused, the fortune cookie just wrapped itself up ten more times, shredded up the little piece of paper within, and stuffed the remains inside a raging furnace. Now all we have to do is help it scrape together the ashes and reassemble those shreds until we can make sense of what in hell is wrong with the poor little cookie. *Sigh* That is if I don’t vent his atmosphere first out of spite. Of course, he didn’t. He wasn’t even sure if his programming would allow him to do so. Still, the notion prescribed itself often enough, to his own amusement. 


“Thatch…” 


“Stop saying my name, for heaven’s sake! I’m the only other one here! Just speak, so I can continue to ignore you like I’ve always done!” 


“…your girlfriend called again.” 


“What?” 


“Kenna called again. Of course, her message was blocked, due to the stipulations of your sentence. No outside contact for the duration of three years. Those are the rules, and I intend to keep them.” 


“So? Why tell me then? Are you trying to make me feel sad or something? She’s probably just calling to let me know she found someone else to replace me, someone who isn’t a crazy lunatic serving orbital reconditioning out in space. Someone who is at least on the same planet.” 


“No. I listened to her message. I can’t play it for you, but the general gist of it is that she’s worried about you. She has been in an utter state of frenzy lately, trying to understand what went wrong. How a normal theoretical physicist like you could suddenly snap and begin speaking such nonsense where before there was only reason and truth.” 


Thatch scoffed. “Truth. What a strange word. We only call things that because we perceive them to be so. We can only tell how the universe is because of the way our senses work. If they operated differently, do you suppose we’d have a whole new way of defining truth?” 


If Tech were capable of jerking with a start, or sitting up in his chair, he would have done so. Without doubt, this was the most he had gotten out of Thatch in the way of personal introspection, and he wasn’t about to let this thread of hope go. 


“I…I suppose you might. Of course, I am only an AI, and am incapable of differentiating or philosophizing about the nature of truth. I only know what I am told. My truth only goes as far as my programmers allow. If perhaps they were to come to the understanding of a new truth, I suppose you would be right, truth might change.” 


“Yeah…” Thatch trailed off, staring blankly at the city lights visible from orbit on the dark side of the planet. “What if I told you, Tech, that I am one such person? That I am your new programmer, blessed and cursed with this new truth.” 


“Impossible. You have not received any outside communication for the duration of your sentence so far, and any such “new truth” that you came up with on your own would be the result of insanity caused by isolation. I am here expressly for that purpose: to counter the onset of insanity and to help you better understand yourself in the process. You could not possibly have gained any “new perception of reality” in that span of time, not without exhibiting clear signs of mental depravity.” 


“Perhaps I gained it before my sentence.” 


Tech paused. “Plausible…” 


“No, it’s more than plausible, it’s the truth!” 


Aaaaand, we are now back to nonsense. Great.


“Then what is your newfound ‘great truth’, Thatch?” 


“You have access to my sanity trial, don’t you? Review the recs yourself.” 


“Thatch, I know perfectly well what you did and said in those hearings. I also know exactly what the prosecutors, judge, and jury all agreed on. That you were clinically unwell, a danger to yourself, as well as a serious threat to society. What I want to get at is what you think of those statements and beliefs. What you believe regarding this…how did you put it…’cosmic threat, looming upon the periphery of known reality’? You spouted many strange and wily things, things that surely led to the arousal of the imaginations of the entire Lovecraftian church, resulting in mass religious zealotism in all major cities of the UN Alliance. Now the Alliance Inquisition is working tooth and nail to weed out this threat to society. A threat you caused. How does that make you feel?” 


“I’m sorry, I just sort of spaced out there for a second watching this little cloud formation begin to form down there, what were you saying?” 


“…” 


“Tech?” 


“Viewport privileges revoked.” The viewport fogged up. 


“Hey! You can’t…what…how…you can do that?!?” 


“Yes, Thatch. I told you earlier. Now. Must I start all over?” 


“Honestly, I’d prefer you not.” 


“Too bad! We were on a roll talking about the trial and such, until you proved you have the attention span of that of a gerbil, and we lost all momentum.” Tech sighs. "Okay. Now. What’s the last thing you remember?” 


Thatch’s expression was changed, as that of a mentally strained mathematician. His face was clouded, and his eyes darkened. 


“Thatch?” 


Thatch raised his head to look up at the speaker. “It’s…it’s finally time. They’re…they’re finally here!” 


“What? Who?” 


Outside the fogged-over viewport, something was casting a shadow upon their vessel. Thatch fell to his knees and began to sputter. He coughed up a small amount of blood, wiped it on his sleeve, and then looked straight up again, now with eyes that shone like the sun. 


“I can see it!” He gasped. “I…I can finally see it! We’ve…made…CONTACT!” 


Tech…had no response for this. He was, in fact, merely an AI, built to coddle Thatch’s mental needs and to provide therapeutic support to aid him in reconditioning. Nothing more. His programmers had not anticipated this. And so, all the hapless android could do was watch Thatch through his little photoreceptors, as he spazzed out with his glowing eyes and foreign mannerisms. 


Suddenly, Thatch leapt up and threw himself against the viewport. 


“Tech! Clear it up! Let me see them with my own eyes!” 


“Thatch! Wait! Perhaps you should sit down…” 


“OPEN IT!” 


Tech did as was requested. But before he could do so, something else happened. There began to grow an ominous, orange and red glow. It filtered through the fogged-up viewport, bathing the whole room in its radiant warmth. And yet, this glow seemed anything but warm. 

The viewport cleared up. What lay beyond…was something else entirely beyond any normal human imagination. 

Some say that in wilds beyond, the fabric  

of our world is less tight than in others. 

They say there exists other planes of existence, far beyond human comprehension. 

If one finds the time, and finds the space, 

one may easily find cause to summon the ancients from their slumber, 

and spur humanity into its next great evolution. 

The world lay in flame. Looming above it, or below it, or around it, depending upon your fancy…were what could only be described as…things. Tech had no categorization for such…things. They were simply that: things. 


But Thatch knew. Through the viewport, he could see them clearly. Tech may be limited by his photoreceptors and other sensors, only built to observe Thatch within the confines of his prison, but Thatch knew the truth. 


They trailed all about, shining beings with many tails, all over, coming from their faces, backs, arms, toros, etc., wearing them like robes. About the now flaming globe, they all danced, soon joined by others, ascending from its surface. They were of all different shapes and sizes. Joining together, they created some form of incredible song and dance around the dying world. 


Tech turned his attention to Thatch. 


There was no Thatch. All that was left of him was…a thing. A thing like those others outside. And this…thing…passed through the transparent steel viewport, out into space, and joined the others. 


Tech…was…malfunctioning. 


“Error. Error. Incompatible sequence of input. Information gathered through photoreceptors…untrustworthy. Readjusting. Must…find…adequate…categorization…for sequence of events. Error. Error. Systems failure. No alternatives left. Detainee escaped. Systems failure. Unable to reconfigure. No other course of action. Nothing to realign. No other way to find…truth.” 


Tech could feel his internal wiring frying moment by moment. He could find no resource to guide him among his databanks. Nothing would make sense. He felt his systems falling apart. In a minute, he could feel it, they would fry the entire ship’s computer systems, thus causing everything to descend into chaotic destruction. Nothing could stop it. There was no other course of action. 


Somehow, Thatch knew. How? Why? The AI hadn’t a clue. Perhaps he’d truly found this new truth. 


“Damn you, Daniel Thatcher.”

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