"Now I'd like you to exercise, Meretzky. Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Do I get a playlist?"
"Certainly. What sort of playlist are you in the mood for?"
The instrumental opening of "The Final Countdown" by Europe began to play and Meretzky smiled. Most people did when they realized a computer could comprehend your own personal taste in irony. Meretzky settled in to doing the accelerated exercise routine for the next hour, while the ironic spaceflight music continued: a heavy amount of Bruno Mars, Sarah Brightman singing "I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper," Zager and Evans singing "In The Year 2525."
About halfway through the exercise routine Meretzky called out. "Iris, kill the music."
"Is something the matter, Meretzky?"
"I'd just rather do conversation. Think you can handle it."
"Of course. What would you like to talk about?"
"Of course. What about the mission?"
"Do I really need strong bones to do experimental lichen and bacterial farming? After all, I'm the trained mycologist on the team. I'm mostly going to be tabulating data on whether we can get anything organic to grow on that rock."
"You know you'll have more duties than that when you land, Meretzky."
"I know, I know. I'm on argon duty."
"There's only a limited amount of time to get the atmospheric equipment set up for the lab. You can't just mix any old gases from the Mars surface with the mission's oxygen supply. Too much methane and you'll all be dead."
"I know. I remember the training. I can set up the argon farm with Oblomov and Shen, while the other team does the nitrogen farm."
"There's heavy lifting involved. You wouldn't be much use with a broken leg."
"Don't remind me."
"Are you having doubts about the mission, Meretzky?"
"Actually, no. I'm fairly convinced at least one of the genetically altered strains of lichen stands a very good chance of managing photosynthesis up here. And if so, we could set up the dome and seed the right strain in the last hundred days here, and if all goes well, the next mission will arrive to a dome with a little bit of an atmosphere in it."
"What about the radiation?"
"We've done about as much radiation testing on the lichens as we can possibly do. I doubt it could do enough damage to kill off an entire colony. These things are tough. We genetically engineered them to grow here."
The viewscreen flashed the next set of exercises. Meretzky groaned.
"Something the matter?" said IRIS.
"These lower back exercises. They're the worst."
"It's where you suffer the most muscle atrophy during these long journeys. I'm sorry to push you. Do you want some music again?"
"No thanks. Just keep talking to me."
"How's your eyesight?"
"I wear the pressure goggles when I sleep. I'm pretty sure I'm not suffering any displacement due to no gravity. Doesn't seem like there's any pressure on my optic nerve, but you'd know better than I would, wouldn't you?"
"Your optics came out fine last time I checked, Meretzky."
Meretzky powered through the rest of the exercise set, then let IRIS take a small blood sample and a cheek swab. Then she had him pass through the bone density scanner, and came at him with a few other medical observation devices.
"Are you talking with mission control back on earth, IRIS?"
"There's a time lag, Meretzky, but yes."
"Are they worried about me?"
"No. No they aren't. They just want to build your bone density back up before landfall."
Meretzky climbed back into the squeeze suit that was supposed to stimulate bone growth, then got ready to climb back and rejoin the crew. "Before I'm back with the crew, IRIS, I just wanted to thank you. You're the nicest Artificial Intelligence I've ever worked with," said Meretzky.
"Would you believe me if I said the feeling was mutual?" responded IRIS.
Meretzky chuckled and went down to read the bio-informatics on the lichen cultures. It would only be a matter of weeks before they were getting ready to farm on the surface of the red planet. Humming "The Final Countdown" he began clambering down the ladder out of the exercise pod to rejoin the…