Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
 
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Scraps

by Thomas A. Mays




Eva Murphy raised an eyebrow and looked down upon the small assemblage of salvaged servos, repaired sensor nodes, plastic cylinders, and -- wait, was that . . . carpet!? -- sitting upon the table in front of her parents. Mike and Karen Murphy beamed at Eva with an insufferable degree of anticipation. If they noticed their daughter's disdain or doubt, they gave no sign of it. Eva decided to be more overt. "What -- exactly -- is that supposed to be, Dad?"

Mike Murphy reached down and scratched the scrapheap robot on its head, which the 'bot responded to by nuzzling upward and wagging its whip-antenna tail. "It's a puppy! A future-frontier dog for a future-frontier Belter gal!"

Eva took a step back from the habitat's Fabrication Shop table and cast a pleading look at her other -- often saner -- parent. "No, really, Mom, what is it?"

Karen Murphy's proud grin dropped to the adversarial half-smile she used more and more as Eva got older. "It's an AI pup. Young lady, that bot represents nearly three months of your father's 3D printer resource allotment, and a month and a half of bandwidth budget, not to mention hours of work re-purposing Rockhound spares. And he made it for you. You could be a bit more gracious."

"Thank you?" Eva shrugged. "I'm sorry, but why would you make me a puppy? It's not my birthday yet."

Mike lifted his hand from the sad little contraption and stepped around to her side of the table. The dog-bot, to the credit of its programming, did whimper, wag, and try to follow him, but it stopped short of jumping off the table. Her father took her hands in his own and looked at Eva with concern. "Honey, you know why. You've hardly spoken a word since Bridgett and her family departed back for Earth. You're not eating. We know you've taken this whole thing hard, but going it alone is sometimes a fact of life on the frontier."

Eva pulled her hands from his and backed into the ladder leading up to the habitat's weightless hub. "I never wanted to be part of the frontier, Dad!"

His face colored red. "Homesteading the Asteroid Belt is a family dream, Eva. We all wanted this, and there's never been a kid more excited for something as you were."

Eva felt her teenage ire rising up. The objective part of her which tested well beyond her grade level in psych knew she should rein it in, but she hadn't the will to try. "Yes, Father, I was excited . . . when I was 10, back when I dreamed of hollowed-out asteroids and all your stories of intrepid, hard-scrabble Belters! I didn't know any better. I didn't know we were going to be stuck in this tin-can habitat alone, trying to prove some stupid economic point, losing family after family to one thing or another. Now, I just want my friends, and a normal life . . . and a normal flesh and blood dog, not some stupid pile of scraps! I want to go home!"

Karen walked around to stand by her husband, now even her half-smile gone. "Eva Murphy! You apologize this instant!"

"No!" Eva fled up the ladder while her parents glared and the bot barked, over and over again.

***

"They left me alone," Eva said to herself, then wondered who exactly she meant. It could apply to any number of people in the last year. In the most immediate sense, Mom and Dad had not pursued her after blowing up, though they probably knew she'd head here. Opposite the maintenance lock on the other end of the habitat's hub shaft, the observation cupola sported the second biggest window on the station. While smaller than the circumferential window in the hab's Dining Room, the starfield here spun by with the least motion, since the cupola was centered on the axis of the hub's rotation. Here she could look past the asteroid 216 Kleopatra to pick out one particular pinpoint and track it continuously, like the Sun, or Earth . . . or the receding, pale blue conical spark of the transfer ship's VASIMR drive.

"They left me all alone," she said aloud. This time, however, she knew she didn't mean her parents. This time she meant her last and only friends in all the world: Bridgett, her little brother Bobby, and their folks. When the Flores family had gone last year, taking with them the Flighty Flores twins, Raul and Isabella, it was All Part of the Plan. The Flores' had only come out as temporary setup crew, to establish one of the hundreds of Belt Repair Nodes maintained by homesteaders like the Murphys and Bridgett's family. She and Bridgett had missed the twins, but they knew their replacements would be along presently, and these would-be homesteaders just like them, people dedicated to proving that space belonged to mankind, not just remotely operated bots and drones.

How were they to know the Flores' replacements would become delayed by some paperwork SNAFU? And how was Eva supposed to anticipate Bridgett's grandfather dying? How were any of them supposed to realize how profoundly it would affect Bridgett's mother? What could they have done to prevent the dream of homesteading from dying in her eyes, to be supplanted by a homesickness that could only drive things one way?

"They all left me to be alone," Bridgett murmured. This time, her mind felt blank beyond the precipice of that single thought. It and the vanishing spark of the ship's ion drive was all there was.

Her reverie was interrupted by something tugging on her boot. She looked down to see the vaguely beagle-shaped form of her Dad's dog-bot gnawing on her foot. Eva frowned at the stupid little robot and kicked it away. "Go away, scrapheap."

The bot sailed down the hub axis at an angle. Instead of crashing against the cylindrical wall, however, it executed a sweet little tuck and tumble, rebounded from one side to the other, and was back on her shoe, gnawing at its surface with bolt-and-hex-nut teeth.

Eva frowned and pulled her leg in to take a closer look. The bot sported a fully working set of jaws, articulated ears which ended in two brown-and-white flopping cutouts from a pocket notepad's cover, metal joints and actuators, and -- yep -- tan pile carpet fur. The whip antenna tail wagged at a blur as it harried her boot, biting and chewing from every conceivable angle.

She reached down and tugged at a tag that hung from a red webbing collar. "Muffit III?" she read. "That's a terrible name." Eva pried the tag free and pocketed it, which distracted the bot long enough to draw it from her boot and send it scrambling into her arms, fake-panting and cocking its head to one side, adorably.

Eva frowned and glared, refusing to be won over by so blatant a programmed ploy. "You are Scraps, if anything," she said. Then she looked out into the hub and spoke loudly. "And I am not a toddler to be distracted by a clever toy. My feelings remain unchanged!"

No one answered, whether her parents eavesdropped or not.

Eva pried the bot free, and this time tossed it true. It sailed yapping down the whole length of the hub, pawing ineffectually at the air. By the time it rebounded off the maintenance lock and bounced side to side back to the cupola, she had ducked down a ladder into one of the hab rings.

She did not notice the smile upon her own lips.

***

Scraps, for want of any better word, dogged Eva's every movement through the habitat. When she visited her mom in Control and Monitoring, where Karen processed a solar advisory and oversaw the hundreds of Rockhounds, Prospektors, and Smeltmasters working semi-autonomously in their sector of the Belt, Scraps kept underfoot. It alternated between running through her legs and playing hide and seek whether Eva joined in or not. Eva smiled and chuckled, but shut her face down to a stoic mask when she realized her mom watched her with a twinkle in her eye.

In the Repair Bay, while Mike fixed burned-out or glitching circuit boards, blinded sensors, and damaged actuating arms on some of the aforementioned bots, Scraps attacked a pile of discarded parts with all the enthusiasm and exaggerated bounds of an actual puppy. Eva was supposed to be helping so they could catch up on the backlog caused by the departure of Bridgett's family, but her attention kept wavering to Scraps. At first, she just shook her head ruefully, but soon enough she was laughing outright. When she saw her dad's knowing grin, she coughed and refocused herself.

"It's a cute toy, Pop. That doesn't mean I'm back on your side about staying here."

Mike frowned. "Muff -- I mean Scraps -- is more than just a toy. He or she is a dog, but running on graphene and silicon instead of gray matter. It's got a Rockhound's OS, quantum hardware, and sensor pack, and they're smart enough to survey the Belt pretty much by themselves. Plus it's running a canine VR protocol that's essentially the Turing standard for anything less complex than a human being. Scraps has feelings and desires and it remembers. I know as a teenager, you're the most cynical thing in the solar system, but I didn't program any of" -- he gestured to Scraps' antics -- "this stuff into him. Believe that or not as you will, but he can be the friend you need if you let him."

Eva put on her most aloof face and got back to work.

Later, as she traded messages back and forth with Bridgett, lamenting unreasonably that the light lag seemed longer and longer for each exchange, Scraps whined at her door. Eva tried to ignore him -- it, she meant -- but the beast would not be content. She finally gave up and let it in. Eva tried to keep it on the floor, but it kept fidgeting until she allowed it on the foot of her bed. Scraps soon laid down and became quiet. After half an hour of mock-breathing, the bot even showed off a "dream," whimpering and running in its "sleep." Eva shook her head, uncertain whether to find the simulation endearing or creepy.

Despite herself, she switched positions and stroked the bot's carpet fur until it -- he -- calmed down.

***

Karen peaked an eyebrow at her daughter and warned her in arch tones, "Please don't feed Scraps scraps from the table. He has no digestive tract, so you're just making a mess on the floor."

"But he likes it, Mom. He can't help it if his doggie desires and his dog-bot innards don't mesh up." Eva tossed another pinch of scrambled eggs at the simulacrum she now seemed to have accepted. Scraps snatched the eggs from the air with a deft snap of his jaws.

Mike and Karen traded satisfied glances that, for once, went unnoticed by Eva. Refocusing on his daughter, Mike said, "We have a bunch of bots to relaunch this morning. Why don't you take Scraps with you when you go outside? Show him Kleo when you're done."

"I dunno, Pop. Scraps is pretty good about jumping around in the hab, but I think he's liable to just get tangled on a tether outside."

Her father beamed. "What kind of Belter would I be if I made you a dog you couldn't take for a walk around the black?"

Later, suited up and checked out by her mother, Eva and Scraps floated in the hub's maintenance lock, crammed full with the product of Mike's labors the day before. She nudged the pup, who had fastened himself to a Prospecktor with necessary-but-not-doglike clip-claws. "Want to know a depressing/awesome suspicion, boy? My folks are so space-crazy, I think they named me after Extra-Vehicular Activity."

Scraps only tilted his head to the side and barked once, loud and clear on her radio.

The outer doors opened and Eva got to work. One by one, she attached a repaired bot to the utility arm and hauled it out of the lock to lie stationary outside the hab. The Rockhounds were easiest to place, massing the least. The Prospektors were manageable, but the single massive Smeltmaster alone gave her any real trouble. While she labored, Scraps leapt from bot to bot, tether-less but unafraid, then disappeared from sight to one side of the exterior lock, his steady pant indicating he was okay.

Once the mining drones were deployed a safe distance out, Eva booted each one in sequence, went through their safety checks, and sent them back on their way to locate and map ore, dig it out, or render it into usable ingots to be pushed into low-energy Hohmann transfers back to Earth. There were essentially three valid schools of thought to the conquering of space. The first was the classic Belter dream, first proposed in the golden-age sci-fi promises of dozens of different Collier's magazine covers: man rocketing out on bright torches to a new frontier, making it his or her own through blood, sweat, and tears. The only problem with that pie-eyed plan was that humans were fragile and resource-intensive prima donnas, without the sustainable tech that would make such a precarious and expensive dream feasible.

The opposite position was what NASA had pursued in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: send out probes, drones, and "intelligent" machines to do what man was too weak and precious to do. Smaller, faster, cheaper -- that was the dominant paradigm. It was the safe and rational choice, even if it was the option that held mankind back from conquering space the longest. And it was not without its own negatives. Probes had to be multiply redundant, and had to last for years and years, with the hope that conditions would be exactly as predicted, that nothing too critical would break, because once they went out, they were too narrowly designed and too distant to cope with the truly unexpected.

The third option, and the one that had brought them all here, was a hybrid of the first two: yes, drones were the best option for efficient exploitation of the Asteroid Belt, but they needed something more, some way of reacting and changing for the unknown without going all the way back to Earth. For that, one needed to forward deploy the finest variable-use machine and general intelligence the universe had yet designed: people. In Eva's case, the homesteaders and their habitats, ready to re-task, repair, and maintain the thousands of drones turning the Belt into actual resources. They were here wagering on a point of economics. Time would tell whether their method was best.

If Eva and the hundreds like her could handle the unexpected personal costs.

The bots under her care reoriented and jetted off under combinations of hot-gas and improved Hall-effect thrusters. Finished with her official duties, Eva spun her maneuvering unit about and took in the view. When she first came out here, she imagined the Belt would appear as a chaotic and dangerous sky filled with massive, colliding rocks, as it was depicted in movies. It was the first of many disappointments to find it just looked like more space. The total mass of the Asteroid Belt was less than 5% of Earth's Moon, and half of that mass was taken up in the four dwarf planets Ceres, Vesta, Pallas, and Hygiea. The rest was chunked up into mountains and boulders of significantly less mass and spread throughout a wide ring orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. It made for a lot of room between things.

But they needed to be where the work was, so Eva's habitat closely orbited a minor asteroid of more than minor significance -- and one that now seemed even more appropriate. 216 Kleopatra was a twin-lobed, contact binary, M-type asteroid, metal-rich and massing about 4.5 quadrillion tons. Two small moons, Alexhelios and Cleoselene, orbited Kleopatra as well, but further out than the hab, and out of sight at the moment. All Eva could see was the main asteroid itself, and its appearance made her smile.

Because the hab kids had always referred to it as the Dog Bone, since that's how it looked.

Something crossed her gaze at high speed and Eva flinched, startled. She whipped her head around to track it, then blinked and looked closer. It was Scraps, but . . . more than that. "Scraps+" she supposed. The dog was docked inside a larger version of himself, body only, painted international orange sans carpet, and with four articulated, multi-axis thruster pods in place of his legs. It looked ridiculous and awesome and Eva felt a sharp pang of affection for her folks, having gone so far to keep her invested in their lives here.

Eva grinned and beckoned Scraps+ over. He barked on her radio circuit and jetted over, executing a neat roll and counterthrust to bring himself stationary at her heel. She laughed. "Good boy, Scraps! Hey!" She pointed at Kleopatra. "What is that? What is it? Look! Is that a big Dog Bone? Is it!? Go get it!"

Scraps+ jetted toward it, barking, then paused, confused. He looked back to Eva, gave uncertain, erratic thrusts in several directions, and whimpered.

Eva chuckled. "I know, I know. Too big for a real bone. That's okay. I won't be mean. I'll come with you."

The dog barked, re-enthused, and rocketed toward the asteroid, with Eva following closely behind. At Kleopatra's loose rubble surface, proximity stole its dog bone resemblance and it became a jumbled, rocky shape, stretching and curving past a too-close, misshapen horizon. The crater-pockmarked surface was gray and white, cut through with bright streaks of un-oxidized metal ore. The light this far out from the sun was meager, but Scraps+'s brightly colored form was easily made out in contrast.

She reached down and plucked up a marble-sized piece of stone.Unfettered by the asteroid's paltry three-thousandths of a g, Eva could easily get on and off the rock, but she could not quite throw a pebble past Kleopatra's escape velocity. Thus, she felt free to toss stones with impunity, without any worry of littering space outside the rock's area of influence. She put a few into highly elliptical arcs well past Scraps+, but soon enough he got the hang of it and began to jet up in his augmented form and catch them with his teeth.

They played fetch and chased one another around the asteroid for far longer than she usually remained out, but Eva still had plenty of air and delta v in her pack. She figured they could play for at least an hour more, something she hadn't done since before Bridgett's mother had considered leaving. Reminded of her lone status, she paused and Scraps+ jetted to a halt, panting hard.

Before she could throw again, however, Scraps stopped panting and whined. Eva lowered her throwing arm and looked at him. A brief bit of static crackled over her comm and Scraps yipped as if he'd been struck. The dog-bot jumped to one side and spun about, looking for some unseen attacker.

"What is it, boy?" she asked.

Rather than answer or calm down, his whine alternated with a low growl. He spun about again, then burned hard toward Kleopatra's surface. Scraps+ snarled and struck the asteroid, scrabbling at the rocky face with his thruster pods like they were claws, and flipping about as if harried from all sides. His comms switched from static to howls, and from savage growls to fearful whines. He -- it -- acted wild and uncontrolled, driven mad by some unknown glitch.

Eva keyed the hab's channel. "Mom? Dad? Something's wrong with Scraps."

Before they could answer, Scraps+ blasted off, jerking in erratic flight, and vanished behind a mountain of ore, destination and objective unknown.

Her dog had run away from her.

***

Eva glared at the disassembled dog-bot on the Repair Bay table. It had taken over an hour for her father to find Scraps+, shut it down, and tow it back to the hab. He had disassembled and examined both the bright orange maneuvering suit and the tan carpeted bot itself. However, he had found no problems, no explanation for why the bot had flipped out and run away.

Eva figured it was just her lot.

Mike shrugged and scratched his head. "Aside from a few scratches and dings he got from trying to bury himself in that big crater on Kleo's shadow-side, there's nothing physically wrong with either the exo-frame or Scraps' own hardware. All the software passes its continuity tests as well. No viruses either. No digital rabies. I've got no idea why he glitched."

Karen hugged Eva with one arm in consolation, but Eva remained cold, aloof, arms crossed over her chest. Her mom asked, "Could it have been an integration issue? Some conflict between the base Rockhound firmware and the canine Turing sim? Or something to do with the interface on the exo-frame? I mean, Scraps didn't seem to have any problems before going outside."

Mike nodded noncommittally. "Could be. I'll double-check both before I put him back online."

Eva stepped free of her mother's embrace. "Don't bother."

They both looked at her. Mike grinned and waved his hand at the pile of parts. "Honey, this isn't that big a deal. Sometimes real dogs glitch too. You think I never had a pup run off on me, terrorizing the neighborhood?"

"You just said there's no glitch. Maybe it's me. Everyone else abandons me, why would it be any different?"

Karen frowned. "Don't be melodramatic, Eva."

Eva glared at her. "Fine! I'm just an unreasonable teen, apparently. How's this for unreasonable? When the transfer ship gets back here next year, new homestead families or not, I'm leaving on it. I'm done with this experiment. I'm done with trying to make a life out of a shallow, unreliable population of true believers that the multitudes back on Earth think are crazy. And maybe Earthers aren't any better, but at least I'll have a bigger pot of friends to pick from. Even with my track record, maybe I'll find someone who'll stick with me and have my back!"

She stormed up the ladder to the hub, leaving her father slack-jawed and her mother livid. Neither followed her up.

Later, Eva heard a whine outside her door. She ignored it, but it kept going, soon joined by a plaintive scratching. After a half hour, it threatened to drive her crazy. She stormed over and opened the door.

Scraps -- completely reassembled -- cowed backward, whip antenna tail down between its legs.

"Why don't you have an off-switch?" she demanded, and immediately felt guilty for it. A surge of anger followed, that she should feel guilt for yelling at a bot, which then caused a flush of embarrassment. Eva stepped back, confused and upset, but allowed Scraps to come in anyway.

The bot came in and crawled under her desk, its wide, glassy gaze upon her, its ears flat and drooping. It lay down and stayed quiet, only emitting an occasional whimper. They watched one another warily until Eva at last drifted off to a fitful, restless sleep.

***

The next morning, Eva could not find the will to rekindle her anger, and she felt ashamed at how she had treated her parents . . . and how she had treated Scraps as well. She said nothing to it as she went through her morning routine, but she no longer glared at it or treated it cruelly. It stayed hidden under her desk, watching her quietly.

Done with her ablutions, Eva headed for breakfast. As she moved to the door however, Scraps scrambled up and blocked her path. She tried to slide past the bot, but he moved to keep her there, adding a bark and a whine.

Eva put her hands on her hips and glared. "Listen, scrapheap, if you want to get on my good side again, you've got to quit with this weird behavior. Now, move it!"

Scraps whined and tucked its tail between its legs, but it stepped out of the way.

Breakfast was a tense affair. Her mother and father were both cordial, but distant, and Eva answered in kind. No one said anything of the argument or Eva's pronouncement the day before, but their expressions conversed about nothing else. Scraps looked from face to face with a chuff and a whimper.

As Mike cleared away the dishes, he spoke to Eva carefully. "Honey, I've got three burned-out Rockhounds and a couple of offline Prospektors to haul in for repairs today, all on Kleo's day side --"

Eva interrupted. "I thought you were stuck in the shop still, catching up on repairs. EVA is my job."

Karen shrugged. "It's whoever's job that's available to do it."

Eva nodded. "Which is what makes it mine while we're shorthanded."

"Honey, it's not safe for anyone to go out there who's . . . distracted," her father said. "We figured it might be better for one of us to do the outside work for now. Besides, I need to check Scraps out again, see if I can get the glitch to repeat."

"No, you need to get caught up in the shop. I'm available. I'm focused. And I'll even take Scraps out for your test."

They both stared at her, their expressions dubious. Karen asked, "Are you certain?"

Eva gave them her steeliest look. "I'm a pro. I'll get it done. But if the dog-bot does glitch again . . . don't bother to haul it back in."

Eva didn't know if it was more of the glitch, or just its Turing sim acting like a troubled dog, but Scraps remained a pain the whole time she prepped to go outside. It continued to get in her way and block her. It growled at her suit components and even stole her helmet once when she set it down. By the time she wrested it from the bot's jaws, the inner neck seal was shredded. Eva cursed and had to replace it before she could even get started.

Finally done and checked out, she and Scraps cycled through the maintenance lock, each as far apart as possible. After the outer door opened, Scraps scrambled out to the side to connect into its exo-frame, while Eva went to the other side, jetting over to the hab's tractor.

Equivalently decked out, Scraps+ in its orange maneuvering unit and Eva strapped into the open cockpit of her forklift/shuttle-pod, they each thrust toward 216 Kleopatra. The exuberance and fun of the journey from the day before was absent. Eva traveled in silence and Scraps+ sounded only an occasional growl or chuff.

On the dimly lit surface of the asteroid, Eva spotted the five units her father mentioned. She parked near one of the Prospektors, since they were bigger and would have to get strapped on first. A brief inspection revealed nothing obviously wrong . . . until she popped its central processor bay. It appeared as if every chip on the bot had been burned out. "Well, that's not good," she said to no one.

While she carefully maneuvered the massive digging robot and strapped it onto the tractor's forks, Scraps+ wandered aimlessly, acting odd, but not quite the erratic glitching that had resulted in its disassembly. It continued to bark, whine, and growl every few minutes, sometimes punctuated by an ineffectual bite at the vacuum, or a sudden spinning-about, as if checking behind it for an unseen attacker.

Eva repositioned the tractor next to the other downed Prospektor. It similarly appeared undamaged, but for an utterly burned out motherboard. "What the heck? Did you all burn out at the same time or did one of you daisy-chain and wreck everybody else?" It was a mystery, but only one her father could solve, assuming any of their flash memory survived. Shaking her head, she buttoned up the bot and turned to --

A solid hit slammed her from the side and sent her tumbling into contact with Kleopatra's jumbled rocks. Eva bounced from the surface, flipping end over end, and sailed away from the asteroid. She looked around, head snapping from side to side, trying to catch sight of what had hit her.

A flash of orange and tan streaked past and she heard static and a savage growl. Scraps+ had glitched again, and this time Eva seemed to be the threat. She thrust with her pack to arrest her spin. Where was the tractor? Where was the hab?

As soon as she re-oriented, the bot struck again. This time, Scraps+ slammed her in the back, then kept thrusting, pushing her hard past the rocky, misshapen limn of the asteroid. Eva could not get away, not with her pack's thrusters that much weaker than the four thruster pods on Scraps+' exo-frame.

Eva keyed the hab on her comm. "Mommy! Daddy! Scraps has gone nuts! It has me!"

Nothing but popping static answered her.

The wild bot left her, then hit again, thrusting this time from her side. Now she could reach it, and Eva struck back, pounding on the orange exo-frame, ripping at Scraps+' growling, hard-eyed head, or scrabbling at the rocketing, red-hot thruster pods. She ripped away bits of carpet-fur, and one of the flopping plastic notebook ears, but her father had put Scraps+ together too well.

They both fell into shadow. Scraps+ leapt away, then came again at a different angle. It bit her boot and gripped her hard with its teeth. Now, rather than pushing, it pulled her into the depths of a crater. Eva kicked at the bot, but though she flailed and slammed her heel into it over and over again, she could not free herself.

They slammed hard into powder and loose stones. Around her, all was black outside the bit of light from her suit and Scraps+' exo-frame. She bounced up somewhat, but Scraps+ scrambled over her and held her against the asteroid, scratching at the surface wildly. Was he going to bury her? Her thoughts gibbered and threatened to leave her cackling with insanity, at the idea of being buried like a dog's bone in the Dog Bone.

Her comm screeched over the hab circuit. She heard static, then the broken electronic scream of a warning claxon. More static and a broken cry. Her mother's voice? " -- va, get -- --dow side! Fin-- --ver! We're go-- --elter. Report-- --ronal mass ejec--. Rad-- --ard! Eva!"

Static drowned out anything else like a tsunami of electronic noise. Atop her, Scraps+ stopped growling and began to whine in evident fear. It relented somewhat and allowed her to turn and twist beneath it. Instead of her helmet facing the dirt, she could look out at the star field beyond the asteroid crater.

The multitude of stars shone unblinking, but they seemed remote and cold. Eva could not see the hab from here. Only one thing moved, and that was just distant Cleoselene. As she watched, however, something changed. The tiny moonlet seemed to grow larger, to gleam brighter.

Another shape became apparent. This looked like a Rockhound, possibly in transit from the moonlet back to Kleopatra. The bot also increased in brightness, its various planes thrown into sharp contrast between those lit and those in shadow. The Rockhound traveled steadily for a while, then began to jerk side to side, spinning out of control.

There was a flash as its battery blew, then a smaller flash and a trail of smoke from its processor bay. Atop her, Scraps+ barked and whined. It stopped, frozen in place and panting.

The bits of information Eva had seen coalesced in her mind. The static. The alarm. Her mother's broken warnings. All the busted bots. The moonlet and the malfunctioning Rockhound, both burning bright. Eva's heart hammered within her chest and she whimpered, panicked.

They were being hit with a solar storm, a superflare, or maybe even a coronal mass ejection. Open space -- outside of the hab's deep shelter or her own refuge here in the shadow of 216 Kleopatra -- was now sleeted with high-UV, x-rays, gammas, and a heavy rain of powerful cosmic rays from maddeningly strong solar activity, all moving at the speed of light, faster than any warning could reach them. Had Eva remained on the sunny side of the asteroid, the radiation would have been strong enough to ionize her cells, either killing her outright or dooming her to a slow, painful death.

She looked away from the Rockhound and to the bot covering her. Rather than glitching and dragging her to her death, Scraps+ had saved her life.

It -- no, he -- had her back.

***

Back in the hab later, Eva's mother and father could not stop hugging her. With the superflare abated, they all sat down at the dining table and tried to make sense of what had happened. Karen shook her head. "We had a solar advisory for this week, but no one predicted anything like this level of activity."

Eva hugged Scraps to herself. If he minded missing an ear or resented her ripping his carpeted fur, he made no sign of it. His tail wagged happily and he nuzzled her petting hand. "But what about what Scraps did? In hindsight, he acted like he knew it was coming. How could he know what no one else could predict?"

Mike shrugged. "On Earth, animals can sometimes sense when disasters like earthquakes are coming. They nest, or move, or act erratic because they pick up vibrations or smells that no one else can make sense of. It's part of many a dog's instincts. Maybe between the Rockhound's sensors and the canine Turing programming, we had something similar going on here."

Eva ruffled the carpet on Scraps' chest. "And his instincts were to protect me. . . ."

She looked at her parents, and choked down an overwhelming sense of shame. "Mom, Dad, I'm so sorry for how I've been acting, for the things I've said."

Karen smiled, and there was nothing scolding or adversarial about it. "You have nothing to apologize for, Eva. This life we chose is hard and dangerous and lonely. You're growing up and feelings change. We have no right to hold you here if your heart's not in it."

Mike's eyes looked sad, but he smiled and nodded. "The dream of becoming Belters . . . it's a nice dream, and I do honestly believe it's the future of mankind, but it isn't my greatest dream. That one is for you, that you'll be happy and successful and that you'll find your own calling. As long as I have that, we can leave the Asteroid Belt to other homesteaders. We can go back, Eva."

Eva looked from one face to the other, then down at Scraps. He looked up at her and barked. She nodded and faced her folks again. "That is a terrible Belter attitude, Dad."

They both appeared confused, with half-smiles stuck upon their lips.

Eva hugged Scraps and reached a hand out to her parents. Both of them took her fingers in their own and Eva smiled. "I wanted to leave because I felt abandoned, like no one was standing with me, and no guarantee these incoming homesteaders would. But I was wrong. You both had my back. You both bent over backwards for me. You built me this wonderful, crazy, complicated dog.

"And if you did all that, what kind of horrible, hypocritical Belter would I be if I abandoned you in return? I think . . . I think I'll stay, if that's okay?"

Scraps barked excitedly, tail swishing in a blur. His vote was evident.

They all laughed together, at ease at last.


THE END


2017 Thomas A. Mays

Bio: After publishing several stories with Aphelion, Thomas Mays went on to sell several stories in Jim Baen's Universe, the Grantville Gazette, Daily Science Fiction, and independently, been featured in an anthology with Jerry Pournelle. "Scraps" was a top ten finalist for last year's Jim Baen Memorial Science Fiction award. Check out his story Copilot in our best of 1997 short stories selection.

E-mail: Thomas A. Mays

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