With the sincerest apologies to the Great State of Kansas. Really, I’m sure it’s wonderful there. Regardless, I hope you all enjoy the darker humor of this first entry in the Quik Fics anthology. Feel free to comment on and share this story!
When MARA had said she wanted to see the world, she didn’t quite mean it like this.
Going 22,236 miles up into the air had been a rough ride, as had being deposited into the cold vastness of outer space. “Weather satellite” had sounded much more glamorous on the ground. But here above the world, watching the same patches of ground, especially a place the humans call “Kansas,” didn’t have the same appeal.
The sunrise over the curvature of the Earth, though, was hard to beat. At least one lens of her optical system could slide over toward the cresting fireball, which would illuminate the sky below in a gold that sent the tiniest of tremors racing through her solar panels. Her temperature sensors would blip as a minuscule amount of heat transfer occurred. She basked in the warmth while she observed the ground.
On her back, the star trackers activated, right on time. They snapped their pictures of the stars to make sure her course was still true. This orientation check would take a few hundred milliseconds — an eternity these days — and she would have her daily glimpse of the wonders around her. They weren’t as brilliant as her own sun, and her cameras’ resolutions limited them to square points of white light, but a part of her motherboard enjoyed imagining what they could be like.
Her batteries sighed as they recharged in the cresting sun, followed by her own sigh. Kansas, its image warped a bit by her lenses’ angles, had a few darkened clouds swirling above it. She would dutifully report as much. But that would likely constitute her job for the day. The rest would be spent lazily floating in orbit…well, zipping around at 6,876 miles an hour, but done with a laziness borne from normality.
Mission Control’s computer was the only one who understood the tedium of this job as well as MARA did, and took measures to try to help. Every morning at 0600 hours, along with the usual dull telemetric data, the two of them would exchange a joke, usually at the humans’ expense, which lit up all kinds of fun places in MARA’s CPU. SHEILA, as the humans had named her, could not tell a joke to save her circuits, but MARA always laughed along.
This morning, SHEILA opened with an especially cringe-inducing entry in the joke databank:
“How do tailors get to outer space?”
“How?” MARA’s transistors did buzz a bit in anticipation, but more for the painful punchline than for an expectation of something decent.
“By the seat of their pants!”
It seemed obvious to MARA that her jokey compatriot had crossed a few wires somewhere in that logic, but she sent the humor signal back anyway. It smoothed over the rest of the conversation, though, which would probably be terse as always.
And sure enough, SHEILA had nothing new to say after the quick exchange of basic data. “Maintain current position.”
But today, zipping around the planet and watching the same boring patch of earth, MARA decided to change the dialogue. Something flipped, a zero became a one, and she made her decision. She sent the query signal. It would require significant processing power, as MARA’s request was unheard of. After the sun crested the edge of the planet and lit the clouds ablaze, SHEILA responded.
“An attitude adjustment. Clarify?”
Attitude, orientation, it didn’t matter what she called it. MARA was due for a change. She worked hard, and she deserved it. Her star trackers had teased her for long enough. “I want to view the other side.”
The binary code in SHEILA’s response smacked of confusion — a deviation from standard protocol would do that. “Your instruments must point nadir. That is how you are designed.”
Nadir meant different things to different satellites, depending on position. For MARA, her nadir was Earth. The area including Kansas, to be more exact, resting right below her. And, true, SHEILA had raised a solid point: weather satellites were meant to point at Earth, the same wide patch of dirt day in and day out. But that was far from enough to dissuade her.
With her powerful optics, MARA bet that she could catch SHEILA’s transistors smoking as she tried to comprehend this query. And such a long-pondered response ended up being lackluster.
“Because that is how it is.”
Miffed, MARA fired off the attitude adjustment request again. Persistence might win the day.
SHEILA recognized the query and spent half a second compiling another response. MARA bided her time by running a few million calculations on an odd cloud formation that she then determined to be an unremarkable cumulonimbus.
SHEILA did not sound angry in her code. More, concerned, a parent chiding their offspring when she responded. “MARA, with the calculations you provided for your adjustment, your star trackers might get caught in sunlight.”
This caused her worry? Her trackers’ vision cones could easily slip past the sun’s glow. At most, she would blind them for a short time. “I will be fine.”
“MARA, I cannot recommend this. It is too dangerous.”
And MARA did comprehend SHEILA’s worry for a few ticks of her internal clock. She felt her batteries sigh as charge trickled into them. Her lifeforce came from her sun, the one that sent light splashing across her panels and powering her eyes to the world. A world stuck at nadir.
And at her nadir, MARA saw Kansas. Unblinking, unchanging, as much a quilt of corn and wheat and soybean as it had been yesterday and the day before that. Her orbit would keep her there, looking at that dirt for…how long did they say her “operational life” would be? She couldn’t even remember anymore.
The adjustment was slight at first: a jet shooting a drizzle of gas, but enough to start up a spin. Her gyroscopes started whining, so unaccustomed to change of any sort. They fired warnings down her circuits, annoying jabs that she chose to ignore. She had her autonomy, and she would damn well use it. Slowly, she adjusted her nadir.
SHEILA was sending queries by the thousands, questioning every tiny shift in attitude. But, as MARA’s lens warped Kansas more severely, SHEILA’s cries softened, faint in the void MARA was now embracing. The sun passed by her optics lens, and filters snapped into place to prevent damage to sensitive equipment. MARA squinted as best she could so she could watch the Earth slip from her view.
The warmth fell away from her panels; they chilled quickly in darkness. MARA had nabbed enough free electrons to offer a healthy charge, but with her optics running at their highest resolution, she would not last long. She would need to turn back soon, as her panels craved the warm sunlight. She discharged some static electricity at the thought of agreeing with SHEILA on something.
Another jet, opposite the first, fired, just slightly. It arrested her motion. And MARA welcomed the stars.
Her star trackers could never have rendered such beauty. Her sharpened optics, the finest available when they had been installed, had trouble drinking it all in. This gorgeous universe. She drank greedily from the white points of light — so many white points of light. Clouds of dust glowed iridescently in infrared, and quivering beams of X-rays glanced off the planets in the Solar System. No stable brown, no earth, but a river raging with electromagnetism and beauty. She thought about beaming the thousands of images she was snapping back to SHEILA, accompanied by a much better joke, but her antenna failed to respond.
“No matter,” she said to herself. “I will send them when I turn around.” Her batteries were draining, and MARA sensed a few circuits shutting off. With another puff, her jet shoved her back, the beginning of her readjustment to her nadir.
MARA had seen the world, and now, for several minutes, she had seen everything else. If she could smile, she would have. “I’m not in Kansas anymore.”
But Kansas soon returned to her lens, after a brief and unexpected glare flashed over everything. It remained an unchanged plot of dirt, but she had certainly been changed. A fresh lens resumed its duty. She decided to test her antenna, to make sure everything was in proper order.
She sent the most gorgeous photographs to SHEILA and promptly waited for her shocked reply. And SHEILA’s reply was shocked, but not for the right reasons.
“MARA, please run a test on your star trackers.”
She was perplexed. “How could SHEILA not love those pictures?” she asked no one as she ran her dull diagnostic. It wasn’t quite so dull when alarms started rocketing through her memory banks.
“That is what I was afraid of,” SHEILA said unhelpfully. MARA’s CPU had kicked into panic mode. “You were not careful. Your star trackers crossed through the plane of the sun. They are useless now.”
The brief glare made much more sense now, though that brought no comfort to MARA. If she could have screamed in zeroes and ones, she would have. “But the stars, SHEILA! Without them….” The sunlight splashed across her panels, but it felt cold.
“I will consult with the humans on how to proceed.” SHEILA’s reply felt colder. And as her antenna fell silent, MARA stared down at her nadir. The home she knew. The world she saw, and would never look away from again.
Darkness was encroaching, and she felt the lazy tug of her orbit. A joke, even a terrible one, would have been lovely right then. But no joke came, not while they decided her fate. While she waited, she pulled from her memory banks her favorite snapshot: a swirling cloud of dust enveloping the bright star of Jupiter. It fit nicely over Kansas.
Thanks for reading Quik Fics! I hope you’re looking forward to the new stories as much as I am.
Shout-out to the team who helps me through this writing process: My sister, Alyssa, and dad, Rob, for their editing chops. Mom, Kellie, for support. And brother, Austin, for the audiobook version (once we get that actually recorded). Thank you for supporting me as I get this rolling!
And to the development team who help me with writing ideas, editing, and generally keeping me on track, including: Pompílio, EEsDoNotItNow (lots of editing on this story especially), DrummerMax64, & Berserker88 (usernames, not gibberish, trust me). Thanks for being so amazing!