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Duplicate, by Alex Feinman (free sample)


"T-minus-30 seconds to impact. Twenty-seven. Twenty-four."

Listening to the computer do differences made me edgy in the face of crisis; I wasn't sure who had programmed the damn thing to count down in threes, but I made a mental note to track him down and strangle him. If I managed to survive.

"Fifteen. Twelve seconds."

I yanked on the controls, hard; the ship leaned sharply in to the turn, but the asteroid was simply too long and I had too much speed relative to it. At best I was going to skim the surface and rip the belly of the craft open; at worst, I'd splash on the surface like a Christmas ornament dropped on pavement.

"Six seconds. Brace for impact."

I jumped for the Duplipod, slamming my limbs down into the slots. My right knee caught awkwardly on the lip of the device, making me tumble in heavily. The padding caught me and inflated; the door slammed shut automatically as the asteroid's pocked surface flashed beneath my mining vessel.

"Zero s--"


I could see the shattered remnants of my ship's tail above me, floating against the darkness. The entire aft section of the craft, from cargo to thrusters, had been grated off as I skidded along the asteroid's surface. Just beyond the sealed windows lay nothingness--an open floor into the gulf of space. My Duplipod was cracked, too: crazed panes of Duraplast were all that separated me from vacuum.

My ears were still ringing from the concussion; even through the padding around me it had been quite an impact. But I was awake, which meant I was alive, and the Duplipod appeared to be holding air and ringing its beacon. So all I really needed to do was sit back and relax, and I'd wake up to a rescue. I just hoped it didn't take too long--last time I'd missed an entire season of Iceball, including my spot in the betting pool. It was somewhat disconcerting to come out of a 'pod and discover that the junior officer you'd been lording it over now had a year of seniority on you. But it was better than being dead.

I sat back, easing into the comfortable cushions, and waited.

The Duplipod, however, didn't seem to be killing me. I checked its status monitor:


(Some errors occurred: please see logs.)

I'd never really learned much about the damn things--they worked great, were pretty much fool-proof, and since the Corp paid for them, I'd never even bothered to read the manual. Well, there was a first time for everything. I reached into the small access panel below the monitor and pulled out the info pad.

1. Enter the Duplipod. Ensure all extremities are completely within the 'pod, and close the door.
2. Relax. The Duplipod operates automatically and silently.
3. When help arrives, you will be regenerated automatically and will awaken refreshed.
4. Please exit the Duplipod at this time so it can reset for the next user. Remember to take all of your personal belongings with you.

Well, that wasn't much help. We seemed to be stuck on step 2, so I thumbed the pad there. It expanded into a little animation of a Space Tower pulling up and hauling in a beat-up looking Duplipod, complete with flashing red light on the outside--no doubt because flashing red lights are extra cool. A voiceover droned on about how safe and effective the process was. I slammed the pad back into the slit in disgust.

The monitor blipped again.


System damaged.
Estimated remaining life support:
81 hours 14 minutes at current consumption rate
Self-termination advised. Please see Section 4.6

Self-termination, eh? I guess the poor 'pod had gotten a little rattled in the crash. Its needle might be broken--heck, the whole tank of poison might have been scraped off the bottom. But it seemed pretty confident in its read, so I flipped over to Section 4.6, which turned out to be a list of humane ways to off yourself. Number fifteen--pithing by projective energy--seemed relevant, so I pulled out my lasgun and--

Wait a minute. What if the 'pod was so badly damaged it couldn't regenerate me? That'd be a laugh. Dead in a Duplipod. Ha ha, very funny. I brought the pistol up again.

Now stop that! Turns out it's hard to kill yourself. I put the pistol away for a minute while I thought things through.

I was stuck in a Duplipod of unknown condition. According to its readouts, I had a bit over eighty hours of life left, the last few of which would be spent in an asphyxiating coma. I had no food or water, so most of that would be hungry-time. In comparison--if it worked right--the Duplipod had a 100% chance of regenerating me, and without all this needless worrying; I'd never heard of the things failing.

But this wasn't an intact Duplipod--it was pretty beat up from the asteroid impact. It claimed it had a good read on me--but what if its diagnostics were broken? What if it only had a partial read? What if I came back as a vegetable, only able to use words that started with the letter L or something like that? I just didn't have the data.

But still--no need to worry about it now. I had 70 hours to think it over, right? I could just lie back and die like a man, or I could keep after the thing. Who knows--maybe I could even fix it.


Hour sixteen.

I've decided to keep a journal. It'll be amusing to read if I make it out of here. Also to keep my mind off the solid wall of uselessness I've encountered when reading the stupid thing's help system.

It's obviously meant to be diagnosed with a Duplipod Brand Debugging System, and isn't letting me get ANYWHERE with it. I can tell there is a simple system under there--it looks like it's running the same OS as my ship, underneath it all--but they have it locked down but good. All I've managed is to weasel my way into the user diagnosis page, filled with cryptic messages meant to be comm'd to tech support. The logs start with the physical damage:


Ya think? The 'matter jam', I would guess, is a giant rock, stuck underneath my butt. I can feel the dent with my derriere, if I squeeze it against the seat.


It goes on like that for a while. But then it picks up:


And then finally there's this beauty:

WITH SOME ERRORS (see log for details)

Some errors? Some? Nor does it say where to find this new log.

And: 'attempt' complete? Does that mean successful, or just finished? The help systems are giving me no clue as to what could have gone wrong. It's making me downright leery.

Seventy-four--no, sixty-four hours of air left. That should be plenty of time to figure this out, right?

Hour forty-

After sleeping fitfully for a while, I gave up, and now I'm back on it. I did some calculations. My mining trawl only took me about ninety mega-clicks off base. Corp should know approximately where I was, and the beacon would take them the rest of the way here, once they know to look for me. The 'pod is sending out high-strength pulses in sets of three every half hour, with lower-power targeting chirps every five minutes; plenty of signal for a team.

So assume a worst-case of half an hour between when I crashed and when the pulses started; a few hours, give or take, to scramble a rescue boat. They wouldn't hurry to get here--if operational, the Duplipod should keep me afloat for decades. So call it a one-gee burn so the crew doesn't have to deal with stress fractures and compressed discs. They'll keep that up for twelve hours, to keep fuel consumption down, then coast the rest of the way. That makes it about sixteen hours for them to get to turn-around, and twelve more hours to slow down; add in the launch time, and you could call it thirty hours total.

So where in the vastness of space are they? A day late, a dollar short?

Well, what if they only kicked in for a half-gee burn--after all, what's the hurry? I'd just jump in the 'pod. At a half-gee, they could keep accelerating longer--a full twenty-four hours. But...hmm. One day to speed up, one to slow down, but a good thirty-four hours coasting. That leaves it right at about eighty hours.

Much too close for comfort. If someone stopped for a piss break I could drown in my own carbon dioxide.

I devoured the remnants of a candy bar I found in my jumpsuit some time ago, but the sugar rush is wearing off--even licking my fingers isn't helping much. The air in the 'pod is getting stuffy and humid with sweat, which is making the vinyl cushions slick. I guess the system is tuning air circulation for conservation and not comfort. It makes my world small and creepy; I can no longer see the stars, unless I squeak clean the porthole and peer out. But watching stars whiz by--I appeared to be in a steady, slow spin--is making my empty stomach that much more rebellious. Better to keep poking at the data pad.

I've given up on above-board methods. Am wasting some time trying to hack root login/password combinations. That old standby, test/test, didn't work--thankfully! I'd have been scared if it did. Likewise field/service, or any of the other hoary chestnuts I can dredge up. I'm not quite bored enough to start a brute-force dictionary attack. Besides, it would likely take way more than the fifty or so hours I have left.

Hour fifty-eight

Success! I'm in! Just a few minutes ago. The elation was making it hard to thumb the data pad accurately, so I spent a few minutes calming down. The air is damn thick in here, and if I'm not careful my body wants to hyperventilate to make up for it. I had to breath through my sleeve for a moment until my heart quieted down to rapid pattering.

The shoddy error messages made me think back to my stint at community college, scamming free Feed from central and using it to play BioChess. After hours of mindless hacking, and letting the login screen cool off from the repeated intrusion attempts, I'd suddenly zenned into "games / fun4u". It has to be left over from an old system, but these backdoors have a way of being passed down through the generations. I'm in--it's a limited account, but a starting place.

Starting there I've found an old debug utility, and wedged it into the boot sequence. Like most ground-breaking inventions, the Duplipod is based on a loose agglutination of building blocks stretching back many decades, and it shows when you peek underneath the thin layer of marketing glitz on the outside. I was able to force the main computer into a hard reboot. It picked up my utility program straightaway. I thumbed in a temp password for the root account; when the 'pod came entirely online I was able to access everything.

Including the deep logs. These are a bit of a worry. The recording apparatus is spitting back errors on every self-check. My eyes are crossing a bit trying to track down the source. I'd rather be underneath the console plugging wires back together--solder and crimp-tools are more my speed--but this soft engineering is where it's at right now.

Moisture dripping off the 'pod canopy isn't making it any easier to concentrate; but there's no help for that. I've tried mopping it up with my sleeve, but all that netted me was a damp elbow.

Poking around also told me that the biological reservoir is empty. This is the pool of polymorphic goo that the machine used to print a new body, or to make repairs to the old one. So even if the scan of my brain was fine, they'd have to plug this machine into a working Duplipod and download me. They'd probably figure that one out; not a big concern.

What has me worried is the next few lines in the log file. I found an old header file detailing the bio/logic system. It had been fairly new technology, fifteen years ago when these had come on the market, and it doesn't look like they've bothered updating it. Typical Corp logic; the old beaters are still (mostly) working, so replace them only on failure. Except here, failure could be a bit more serious.

The bio/logic system is for long-term storage of the brain pattern. In the hot spots where we miners work, solar radiation is a real concern. Our ships are well shielded; a large chunk of the extra mass on board ship goes toward protecting the pilot during solar flares. And we all take anti-ox pills to help offset damage from the constant bombardment of high-energy photons. That--plus our limited exposure time--helps a great deal.

But the Duplipod was built to last for a long, long time--decades, if need be. And to fit in the smaller vessels the manufacturers had to keep the mass and volume down to a svelte, and more importantly, cheap, amount. Shielding the storage core on that kind of a space budget is tricky.

And so the clever designers had decided to pick up the new tech, and weave it in; heck, marketing the buzzword-enabled bio/logic storage subsystem probably helped them move some investment capital. It'd taken ten years, but the fundamental technology had become commodity--the newer systems on my ship used the stuff, too.

The original idea was fairly straightforward. Biological material--usually artificial blood plasma, since it's dirt cheap and had a good protein density--is stored in a reservoir, and pumped past the info exchanger. Write heads acted on the fluid as it goes by, tweaking spare links in the proteins to store information. Massively redundant encoding and continuous mixing provide resistance against data loss: microscopic samples containing millions of protein molecules are taken continuously. Faulty data is repaired based on a consensus arrived at by majority vote among the dense array of read heads. It's safe, effective, and lasts basically forever, provided the system doesn't dry out.

Or, provided your 'pod doesn't get bounced off an asteroid. I'd finally gotten the system to fess up, and it seems like that's what had happened; a near-splash event. The reservoir--if I twist around I can actually reach it over my right shoulder--has a hairline crack in it, and voided to vacuum some time in the last twenty hours. That means no memory, and no backup--the system had dutifully recorded me, everything that was me, to plasma, but then lost that recording right out the crack.

I've put the gun away for now.