Scoping in on Cass, Nathan could see that the Bio-bot’s movements had become even more labored. Whatever her affliction, it appeared to be worsening.
To his surprise, he felt a twinge of remorse at her impending demise. And he realized it was more than just the loss of her computer skills and her ability to tote supplies. He felt like he was losing a friend. He shook his head, almost laughed at the absurdity of the upwelling emotion. First he was on the verge of tears for a dog, now a robot. “You truly are one pathetic excuse for a soldier, Corporal Baht,” he muttered, mocking himself in his best Kaliss impression.
With a cleansing breathe, he shook the distraction and forced himself to focus on the task at hand. He raised the hi-tech binoculars, pressing the unit hard against his face as a reminder to concentrate.
For as far as the eye could see, and according to every sensor on the multi-scanner all was quiet. Too quiet. The eerie twilight silence filled him with a sense of impending doom that he just couldn’t shake, his mind as unsettled as the planetary dust.
Despite the foreboding aura, over the next ten minutes, he began to relax, managing to do so by keeping his mind busied with routine. Multi-scanner sweep, check readings, lower unit, eyeball horizon, 360 degree scan—all clear—look in on team. Then mindlessly repeat like a good little soldier. Kaliss would surely be proud.
Although his surveillance remained unchanged, his routine bordering on robotic, his moment of soldierly Zen ended as he realized he hadn’t seen Cass since she disappeared behind a drumlin of wreckage some ten minutes ago. He swept the area with the multi-scanner, got nothing, and his worries resurged—the confusing planet, the mounting devastation, his role in the ongoing fiasco, the prickling pressure of more to come, and now the potential loss of another team member.
Anger and frustration stirred his thoughts to a boil, exothermic emotions pressing at his skull till it ached. He’d never felt so utterly helpless, so universally useless. Sure, he could trigger an alarm, warn the others of approaching danger, but he could do nothing to stop it. Nor could he leave his post and search for Cass.
Helpless. The word throbbed in his mind like an emotional aneurysm.
And underscoring it all was the ever present sense of guilt, not only the self-imposed but that arriving via the spiritual milieu. Like a memory projection, he could hear his wife’s voice in his every thought, hereafter shame from the great beyond. He cursed in his mind, scolding himself. Because he knew there was no way she’d approve of his actions since her untimely departure.
And in that instant he became aware of a sudden understanding. It was likely there all along yet he’d just never made the connection, his perception clouded by the emotional ambiguity of such a peculiar notion. But now as it became clear, he felt it just as sure as he felt his thudding heart. And it explained so plainly, he now realized, why he suddenly became so emotionally unhinged over the wellbeing of a machine.
Cass had become a surrogate for Helen.
All those nights staying up late—talking, laughing, exchanging ideas, while the Bio-bot was set on mirror mode—was him connecting to his memory of Helen. Cass had been filling the void left by his wife, a synthetic replacement, a prosthetic stand-in for his amputated love. It may not have been the most conventional of relationships, and Nathan was certain that a shrink could make a career studying the psychological issues inherent in such an affair, but it had worked for him.
And over time, despite the obvious absurdities, a bond had developed; the enormity of which he only now realized. Cass had keep him from going insane, allowed him to function, offered comfort, especially as the days wore on and the magnitude of his mistake in joining the military clamped down in his psyche. It was no overstatement to say that if it wasn’t for Cass, he wouldn’t be alive today.
And now, like Helen, he failed to protect her. The notion, when it struck, shook him to his foundation. He felt suddenly weak and went down to a knee; lost, livid, distraught.