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Carry On, Torus
    by Gregor Hartmann

Carry On, Torus
Artwork by Anna Repp

Becoming aware of thoughts banging around in the old bean, I deduced that I was conscious again. And still breathing, which seemed rather a good thing.

In the cozy embrace of the survival bag, I wiggled my fingers. A metal ring was a comforting presence.

"Good morning, Torus," I said.

"Good morning, sir," my factotum replied, his tiny speakers vibrating my knuckle.

The ring that housed my virtual valet was modest. Self-effacing. Like moi, Andrew Woozer, gentleman. A simple gold band, with no engraving to impede his wee thoughts as they whirled around my right index finger like greyhounds at track.

I rubbed my face, felt stubble. How long had I been unconscious?

"Is it morning, Torus?"

"Morning is the period of time from sunrise till noon, sir. On this Kuiper Belt Object, we are currently located on the hemisphere facing away from the sun. In local terms, the corresponding temporal setting is approximately midnight."

"Dash it all, Torus, I know I'm stranded on a KBO, but couldn't you be a trifle more cheery?"

A pause.

"The object on which we crashed has a short rotational period. In one hour fifty-six minutes twenty-one seconds, rotation will bring the sun into view, hence aligning our circumstances with your preferred salutation."

"That's more like it."

The survival bag was snug, but never let it be said that a Woozer shirks his duty. I outsided my noggin like a mole reconnoitering a new garden.

A remarkable panorama of stars binged across the black sky. Blazing as if just out of reach. Not surprising, really, since (a) I was in the Kuiper Belt, at the outermost edge of the solar system, and thus closer to the heavens than on poor old Earth, and (b) the thin bubble of the escape dome was near my face, so only a wisp of atmosphere stood between me and their bright company.

"My yacht?"

"Completely vaporized, sir."

"Are you certain?"

"Yes, sir. You were lucky to be able to eject."

Sunrise disappointed. Even at KBO distance, the sun should have been an extremely bright star, enlightening the environs and lifting the Woozerly mood. Instead, it was shrouded in gray fog. Not a bracing, night-of-mischief, concealment-from-policemen fog. Rather, a dismal, pea-soup-and-oatmeal, cold-water-in-the-socks fog.

"The Rot is eating the inner solar system," I grumbled.

"Most unfortunate, sir."

"I hope the boffins are satisfied."

"I suspect they're all dead, sir. Thus incapable of altering their mental state in response to a change in external stimuli."

I had never understood what the boffins were trying to accomplish with their bloody photospheric engineering. Something about nana bees? Unleashing a swarm of nana bees to gather light from the sun and fill our batteries with clean energy? Well, a right fine mess they'd made. The entire human race had been devoured.

With one significant omission. Moi.

"Well, Torus, I must get on with it. Surviving. Defying the Rot. Embodying the best humanity has to offer."

"Very good, sir."

Being stranded on a remote KBO, with limited supplies and no chance of rescue, my thinking immediately focused on the key issue: a morale-lifting libation.

"Torus. Now that it's officially morning, what is the chance of a tipple to greet the day?"

"I have been analyzing the local environment, sir. The white substance you see outside the dome is water ice. Carbon, nitrogen, and other light elements are present in abundance. Radiolysis by energetic particles has produced a remarkable abundance of organic materials. I detect polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, glycoaldehyde. Even ethanol."

"Ethyl who?"

"Ethanol, sir. Chemical formula C2H5OH."

"Dash it all, Torus, are you hosting a quiz show? You know my expertise is in the field of gracious living, not the sciences."

"Commonly known as alcohol, sir."

"The deuce, you say. And there's ice? A chilled drink would be capital."

I thought of Torus as inhabiting the golden ring I wore on my finger, but his program was distributed through other components, of course. A mobile module that resembled an armadillo stirred to action. It stood on its head, corkscrewed through the floor of the dome, and burrowed into the reddish ground. Eventually it returned, sat up, and extended its lower lip like a gravy boat. I held out a cup and accepted a blue trickle of drool.

"Blue? Are we drinking from toilets now? I realize the accommodations are not five star, but still."

"My apologies, sir. I will attempt to adjust the coloration."

Cautiously, I sniffed. An odor like fresh petrol assaulted my nose. Andrew Woozer is not the snobby sort who blathers on about notes and terroir, but alas, the bracer on offer did not seem first-rate. Still, not wanting to hurt Torus's feelings, I sipped. My tongue burned. Tears watered my eyes. Then, gradually, a familiar warmth numbed my face.

I quaffed it all down. It stayed down, so I held out my cup again.

"Good show, Torus. Another, please, to fortify me for a manly day of survival and adventure."

Peering out through the cracks in my onion, I noticed the sun was not where I had left it. The stars ragged at me, an intolerable racket. Fortunately the survival bag held my fragments together.

"Torus," I croaked. "What time is it?"

"A local temporal reference frame has not been defined, sir. However, nineteen hours thirty-seven minutes fourteen seconds have elapsed since you. . . fell asleep."

"Blast it all. Why didn't you awaken me? I have important work to do. I must concoct a clever, far-reaching plan to triumph over the Rot."

"I felt it would be strategic if you rested and regained your strength, sir."

Ignoring the blue comets banging around the coconut, I painfully extruded myself from the maw of the survival bag.

The modules had been busy enlarging the tiny dome. Now it was big enough to stand up in, and even take a few tottery steps. A proper hatch had been installed in the floor. Vibration underground suggested manufacturing. Torus's modules waddled in and out of the hatch like industrious badgers commuting to offices in the City. The commotion was annoying to my fragile morning head, but I decided to overlook it.

A gurgling noise from my interior signaled hunger in the Woozer chassis.

"Torus. What do we have for déjeuner?"

The top of a module popped open, offering a block of survival rations the size of a deck of cards. A meager portion, as if pried from some miser's cupboard. Yet I tucked in hungrily. Cleverly designed--even the packaging was edible. I patted my lips with the wrapper, pretending it was a fine linen napkin, then gobbled it down too.

"The second course?"

"My apologies, sir. Supplies are limited. I calculate that if you eat sparingly and avoid physical activity in order to conserve energy, you will live approximately 54 to 86 days. I regret that I cannot be more precise, but how rapidly your body consumes itself is a variable."

"Six weeks? Then I ghost off to harp land? You know I'm not musical. Why not party now?"

"I hesitate to contradict you, sir, but I have a plan."

"Do tell."

"The dried vegetables in the rations include viable plant cells, sir. Working from plans in my extensive data archives, I have constructed a bioreactor, where I am coaxing the cells to reproduce. Eventually I hope to build seeds that can convert local organic material into life-sustaining crops. It will take time, however. A conservative approach to dining may enable you to survive until the first harvest."

I patted my paunch, remembering the fine meals it represented. How many splendid tables had I dined at? All those elegant country houses, their talented French chefs. Their exquisite béarnaise sauces now devolved into goop by the Rot. So sad.

"I suppose a spot of dieting would make me a more dashing figure as I carry on the human race," I said, trying to be brave. "What are you attempting to grow?"

"Potatoes, sir. They tolerate shade, so they should do well in this penumbral realm. They produce complex carbohydrates that will be your main energy source, as well as antioxidants and vitamins. Carrots and beets are also possibilities."

"Beets?" I shuddered. "Do focus on potatoes, please."

I may have been under considerable stress, but instantly my keen mind saw the implications of Torus's scheme.

"By Jove, Torus, if you can grow potatoes, I can have frites!"

"I endeavor to give satisfaction, sir."

Delegating the busywork to Torus, I devoted the slog of enforced idleness to a vitally important task: picking a name for humanity's last citadel.

As the discoverer, I felt entitled to do the christening. And no false modesty! New Andrew? Woozlandia? Sadly, nothing was spot on. I don't know how those yorey explorers managed. Perhaps because all the good names weren't taken?

Eventually, I came up with "Kibble." Partially as a play on KBO, and partially because of appearance.

Kibble's surface was a hodgepodge of pebbles, rocks, debris. For variety the mess included craters and jagged peaks, their sharp edges unsoftened by weather. All reddish-brown: the "organic material" that Torus liked to rattle on about. The place looked as if a brick factory had burned down, and the firefighters slathered the wreckage with cheap curry.

On the plus side, the scant gravity meant I could leap over the dog's breakfast of a landscape like a kangaroo crossed with a mountain goat.

After the first harvest came in, when tying on the feed bag gave me a bit more spark, one day I bounded to the top of a crag to survey my domain. Ruin and rubble as far as the eye could see.

I sighed.

"You seem dispirited, sir."

"Rubbish. Never more in the pink, Torus. My bonheur is the essence of pinkness. Pink as a baby's bottom, and pinker yet!"

"Your serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine levels suggest a less exuberant hue, sir."

"Torus, what have I said about dipping into my juices?"

"My apologies, sir. Although my botanic database is extensive, that information is referenced to a terrestrial environment, now sadly irrelevant. Here, it is possible that the crops could interact with local organic material to produce unanticipated substances. Monitoring for side effects is a necessary precaution."

"You think my mood is drippy? Well, dash it all. Look around you." I gestured at the barren vista. "I'd call it a moor, but that would be an insult to moors."

"I have been pondering the effect of the environment on your mental state, sir. With your physical survival in hand, we must necessarily focus on psychological factors."

"Now, don't go all mental on me, Torus. I'm in tiptop shape. Tiptop!"

I picked up a pebble, flung it into the void, glumly watched it plummet to the ground far below.

"Long napping is consistent with depression, sir."

"Nonsense."

Looking down, I wondered how hard I would hit if I jumped. In the light gravity, I would have time to strike a variety of droll poses in the course of humanity's final swan dive.

"I can expand the dome, sir, and give you a larger space in which to roam."

"More ugly rocks to stumble over?" I stood up, flexed my toes, extended my arms.

"Since my success with potatoes--"

"Mmm, those frites." Mouth watering, I sat down.

"Thank you, sir. I have been experimenting with modifying lines of plant cells into other vascular structures. I believe I can create grass, shrubs, even small trees."

"Am I a giraffe, to graze on trees?"

"Not for food, sir. I believe that if I could construct a more familiar landscape, you would feel comfortable here."

"A bit of turf would be lovely to walk on. Could I go barefoot?"

"Once the ground warmed up, yes, sir."

Torus was a good chap, for a program. But he was like an old-fashioned Swiss watch, gears going in circles, one deliberate click after another. No imagination. That was my role, as a human with aesthetic sensitivity: to look past superficial science matters and make intuitive leaps.

"Grass, you say? Could you do varieties of grass? Different kinds of grass, with different properties?"

"I believe so, sir."

"Then I know just the thing to lift my spirits and defy the Rot by preserving the best of human culture. The very best."

"Fore!"

Thwack!

The white orb shot into the distance and slowly arced over the narrow strip of green fairway. The gallery murmured appreciatively.

"How far was that one, Torus?"

"3.572 kilometers, sir."

"I say, this low gravity is splendid. I've broken every record. And with only a putter!"

"You are undoubtedly the best golfer in existence, sir."

I teed up another ball and took my stance facing the gallery: a line of Torus's modules. In this batch, one had been manufactured to resemble a fox, the rest a pack of hounds. Another culture-preserving project. After a jolly hunt over ruddy hill and ruddy dale we would all traipse to the pub where I lived (sleeping on the billiards table) and enjoy our respective swizzles: Blue Moon '00 for me, electricity for them.

As I addressed the ball, a flash of light in the sky caught my eye.

At first I thought it was Torus's doing. Determined to hoist my morale, he used the surface of the dome as a giant display screen. Although he pretended the images that appeared there were a side-effect of tidying up his RAM, I knew it was an attempt to jolly me up with entertainment from his encyclopedic archives. Shakespeare did not take--my mind is too modern for that ancient stuff--but I have to concede some classic cartoons did elicit a chuckle.

The light grew brighter against the blackness. Something was moving through space, coming closer to Kibble. With a sudden blast of retrorockets it landed behind a ridge outside the dome.

"Torus?"

"I shall investigate, sir." The modules shot off, fox leading the hounds. They sailed into the air in a V like migrating geese.

Had the Rot found me? That would not do.

Waiting, I continued to practice. The backswing in particular was tricky. Despite wearing ankle weights, if I cocked the club too quickly I floated off the ground.

Diligently, I shot more balls. The goal for the week was to minimize my slice, which was painfully obvious, since the fairway was a narrow strip of Bermuda grass bordered by tawny rough on both sides. The solution was to control how the club face met the ball. Alas, the Woozer hands, having evolved to keep the stem of a cocktail glass perfectly vertical despite an impaired gait, were not ideal for sport. I suppose I could have had Torus design a club that compensated for my eccentric swing, but that wouldn't be cricket.

In the distance, an object like a very large centipede appeared.

Being sans weaponry, I slung my putter over my shoulder and affected a casual attitude. Good form, all that.

As the object perambulated nearer over the rough red landscape I saw it was a scrum of Torus's modules bearing a large metal contraption on their combined backs. They fetched it to me and scuttled out from under. Regally, it settled to the trim grass of the tee, landing with a dainty puff of red dust.

A hiberpod?

Someone else had escaped the Rot.

At one end, a transparent porthole afforded a round peek into the interior. As the frost melted in the warmth of the dome, I leaned close to see who dreamt therein.

I recoiled in shock.

"Good lord, Torus. It's Evelyn!"

"So it is, sir."

"Evelyn Cavendish-Grenville herself!"

"Precisely, sir."

One of those exhausting modern women. A first in physics at Cambridge. Always fussing over some silly project: inventing things, founding companies. An aunt once tried to fix me up with her during dinner at a country house. Fortunately, between the coquilles Saint-Jacques and the mousse au chocolat Evelyn somehow formed the notion that I was an incorrigible layabout. A narrow escape for old Andrew from the bonds of holy wedlock.

Gloomily, I studied the instructions stenciled on the hiberpod. Reviving her would be simple.

"The red button, sir."

"I can read, Torus."

A pause.

"A bit of human companionship would be good for you, sir. You sleep with the fox. You call him Paddie, after your old toy bear."

The advent of another human being suddenly made me conscious of appearance. Ragged cut-off trousers, a top hat. . . When had I last trimmed my nails? Not the least bit presentable.

"I'll have to behave!" I wailed. "She'll expect me to entertain her instead of nipping round to the pub."

Torus was silent.

"And all that complicated male-female stuff will come into play." I clutched my long shaggy beard. Perhaps I looked the part of a patriarch, but. . .

"What if she wants to procreate? Could you see me presiding over a brace of grubby little pests? I'm the last man in the world to be a father."

"You are the last man in the world, sir."

"Botheration. What's a chap to do, Torus?"

"You could always close your eyes and think of England, sir."

Dash it all.

I took a deep breath, extended my putter, and bravely tapped the red button.

Greeting the dawn on the steps of a cozy bungalow, I gazed out over a world transformed.

Under a vast dome, sunlight shone on smoothly rolling parkland. A new batch of Torus's modules, contrived to resemble a flock of sheep, pretended to graze on the lawn. There were no larks, but the synthesized warble of their song enhanced the idyllic effect. It could have been an April morning in Devon--aside from minor details, like vulgarly garish stars splattering a coal-bucket sky.

Evelyn was in the gazebo, breaking fast amid wisteria and roses. I went to her.

"Good morning, dear."

"Darling." She presented her creamy cheek to be kissed. A gold ring, a duplicate of mine, decorated her delicate left hand. Torus was serving her, too.

"Have you been up long?"

"A while. Isn't the sunshine grand?"

We took a moment to admire the bright star at the center of the solar system. The nana bees having consumed themselves, the gray fog had vanished. The Rot was gone.

I sat down in a white wicker chair and reached for a scone. Suddenly, the ground rumbled. Her teacup clattered on its saucer. Golden-brown droplets arced upward in the light gravity and slowly pattered down on plans and diagrams covering the table.

I blinked. "My goodness. Is Kibble breaking up?"

Evelyn smiled her victory smile. Meaning: an experiment had worked. "I'm testing rocket engines. I had Torus build them on the other side."

"Without consulting moi?"

"Andrew, darling. You're so busy with your winery project. I didn't want to bother you."

Merrily, Evelyn revealed her plan. She intended to build a vast number of rocket engines and propel Kibble back into the warmer nooks of the solar system. The details were a tad complicated, but I gathered that water could be turned into thrust, through some sort of dodgy science trick, and that as our little world squirted its mass into the void like a gardener wielding a hose, it would go faster, so we could pop back to Earth in a reasonable time and install Kibble as a jaunty new moon in a low orbit.

She finished her scone, pecked my clean-shorn cheek, and set off on her inspection rounds. The sheep obediently queued up, like carriages behind a locomotive. Evelyn could be vexing, but I must say, she had grip.

When my helpmate and her wooly minions were out of sight, I extracted a pipe from my waistcoat and lit up. Tobacco. From a little patch Torus had fiddled for me. Without her knowing, I hoped.

I puffed a smoke ring at the resplendent sun and pondered her scheme.

Even though I was startled when she sprang it on me, I rather fancied the idea of sailing Kibble back to Earth. It would be like the old days, when the Royals commandeered a battleship in order to tour the colonies. Show the flag, all that.

Suddenly, I perceived the terrible flaw in Evelyn's plan. The oversight that negated everything.

As a scientist, she was top-notch. But in the panache department? Not nearly as advanced as moi.

To show the flag, first, one must have a flag.

"To my atelier, Torus."

"Begging your pardon, sir, but there is none."

"Then I shall build one! Then I can design a proper flag for Kibble."

"Very good, sir," my finger vibrated.

What ho, Earth! Stiff upper lip. Andrew Woozer is coming to set things right!

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