“Murphy, wake up.” The soft female voice seemed distant.
He tried to roll and found himself restrained.
“Let us disconnect those,” she said.
He cracked an eyelid. The gray, curved interior of his hibernation chamber crowded him.
“What?” he croaked.
“There is a problem,” responded the voice. It represented the collective colony-ship Caretaker Programs.
“Why did I take this job?” he muttered.
“You are the Chief Mechanic,” she said.
He groaned. That wasn’t it. He’d wanted to prove himself. But to whom? His idiot engineer stepfather? His snooty, middle-management-drone ex? “It’s a long-term commitment,” they’d both warned with identical mock concern. As if he couldn’t think for himself. As if this was just another big mistake. Well to hell with them and everyone else that made it possible to feel lonely in the midst of twenty-billion people. He didn’t need them.
Here, he had purpose. He was Chief Mechanic. On Aberdeen Ceti Four he would be needed. He could start over without the muddle of uncertainties. He knew his job. No more mistakes. No more regrets.
Murphy flexed and released his muscles. They ached, but otherwise responded well. “How long did I sleep this time?”
“Seriously?” The mission was only 126 years old!
He cursed the company and its corner-cutting bean counters. Cheap bastards.
Soft pads released tender tissue and retreated into protective compartments. He punched the yellow easy-release panel. His tube hissed open.
“I envy you,” he said, stretching against post-suspension fatigue.
“You don’t tire.”
“All systems suffer entropy.”
“But you don’t feel it.”
“What broke this time?”
“Primary thruster one’s containment field is failing.”
Murphy shuffled to a console. The thruster reading was 42%.
Murphy toggled to the containment readings—15%. The ship trailed a wide path of radiation.
“What caused this?”
“The south receptor failed to operate to specifications. The field collapsed.”
“So switch to backup.”
“The present unit is the backup.”
“They both failed? Show the analysis.”
The numbers suggested a materials failure—a problem that could not be repaired en route. Murphy returned to the emission display. A huge radiation cone fanned from the thruster.
“Can we increase the others to compensate?”
New calculations appeared. “Not for the entire flight,” she said.
He studied the figures. They could handle the extra load for about 240 years. “Show dispersal if thruster one operated at 100% without containment.”
The cone brightened, but the acceleration kept the ship safely ahead of it.
“That looks okay,” he said.
“It is prohibited to use a containment-free thruster at that power level.”
Murphy rolled his eyes. “Containment regulations are for in-system flight … to protect nearby populations and intersecting ship routes.” You moron.
He examined the hypothetical thruster wear. Removing containment actually increased its longevity. Not that it was enough. At mid-journey the ship would pivot to decelerate, placing the entire payload—cargo, passengers and crew—smack in the middle of that lethal cone. He couldn’t use thruster one for deceleration, but the remaining thrusters alone would wear out before the end.
He considered waking the flight engineer. But an idea struck. “What can we get from thruster one if it only has to last another 360 years?”
The screen displayed an output range with corresponding probabilities of catastrophic failure at year 360—half way. Until then thruster one could operate at 160%.
“If we choose 160% for 360 years, and the remaining thrusters are conserved proportionately to maintain standard acceleration, what is the probability the surviving thrusters could handle deceleration to target, considering the reduced wear?”
The screen changed again. He smiled.
“Perfect,” he said. “Here’s the new plan: remove one’s containment entirely, take it up to 160%, and—”
Three quick tones sequenced the standard “error” signal. “Without containment, thruster one cannot exceed 30% of its standard operating output.”
“Sure it can. The radiation spreads away from the ship.”
“Those performance specifications cannot be attained. They are outside operational parameters.”
“No, they’re not. You’re enforcing a stupid safety rule. It’s got no application here. We’re deep in untraveled interstellar space. It doesn’t matter how much crap we leave in our wake.”
“We cannot exceed established parameters.”
“Safety override requires approval of a majority of administrators.”
Murphy folded his arms as the Caretaker Programs repeated the statement like a dimwitted child. He considered his options. The Caretaker Programs would follow rules unfailingly—into the heart of a supernova if that’s where it led.
“How many administrators are there?”
“There are currently 12 administrators.”
“And a majority of them would be …”
Crap. Murphy rubbed his neck. Despite a 19-year rest he felt exhausted, and the thought of waking six crewmembers to outvote a computer amplified his fatigue.
“You said currently?” he asked. “Has it changed?”
“There were four at startup.”
He strummed his fingers on the console. “Can I add or delete administrators?”
“How many can there be for a majority of one?”
“There can only be one administrator for a single administrator to be a majority of administrators.”
He tightened his jaw. I hope the Captain doesn’t review this log.
Murphy straightened. “Fine. Delete as administrators each of the following …” He touched the screen—one name at a time—except his.
“Done,” she said.
Murphy whistled softly. He was not a praying man, but he felt the urge now. If he keeled over with a stroke, the colony would be in sorry shape. What lame-brained designer thought it was okay to risk administrator abuse, but not okay to override inapplicable safety protocols? Of course, in Murphy’s experience, engineers and management shared one trait unfailingly: an appalling lack of common sense.
“If I die,” he whispered, not praying, per se, but the closest he’d come in many long years, “bring me back.” He drew a deep breath, and then raised his voice, addressing the Caretaker Programs. “Now, override safety protocol governing thruster power without a containment field.”
“Please specify limiting parameters.”
“No limiting parameters. Override every such protocol.”
“Bring thruster one to 160%; drop its containment entirely; lower thrusters two, three and four to 68%; maintain those levels until you start halfway procedures.” He cleared his throat and spoke with deliberate care. “Now listen carefully—before you turn the ship around, turn thruster one off! You got that? And shut it down permanently. It is not to be used during deceleration. Put the deceleration load entirely on thrusters two, three and four. Do you understand?”
He regretted his condescending tone. The Caretaker Programs were not idiots. They were state-of-the-art artificial intelligence. But they took things so literally.
“Now,” he said, relaxing. “Before I hibernate again, give me status of all major systems, and make me a snack.”
Most systems were well-within spec with only minor problems on the horizon. He walked the ship and visually inspected the pumps and actuators showing signs of premature fatigue. His best guess was that at least two of them would fail in the next 100 years. Everything else looked fine.
“Okay. Don’t wake me if you don’t have to. But no matter what, make sure we get there safely.”
“Please specify limiting parameters.”
He shook his head. He had already been over this. “No. You don’t understand. Are there any living things within twelve parsecs of our location?”
“—or within 12 parsecs of any point along our path?”
“Right. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Safety protocols that do not involve the safety of this ship and its crew and passengers don’t matter. They’re dangerous and unnecessary limitations. Override all of that.”
“That would include the Von Neumann subsystems.”
“That includes every system. This ship and its mission—that’s all you need to worry about. Get us there safe and sound. At all cost. Don’t cut corners. Okay?”
He dreamt of a beautiful young woman with soulful auburn eyes. She took care of everything, keeping him safe. He felt a bond that transcended time and space—something deep and significant. Who was she? He sensed earnest determination and dedication, gentle caring … but there was something elusive. She yearned for an impossible perfection. He wanted to ease her stress. It was too much. But he knew she wouldn’t understand.
“Murphy, wake up.”
Crushing fatigue gripped him. Searing pain lanced his temples. Something was wrong, but the effort to think sparked acute nausea.
“Do not try to move.”
It was her voice and it was everywhere—soft, pervasive. His mind spun in darkness. He couldn’t consider responding.
“You told us to bring you back.”
“We’ve come to understand the statement might not have been an order.”
He sensed a weighty philosophical debate—powerful and intelligent factions supported divided opinions. These weren’t voices. They were thoughts twisting in a vast emptiness.
Where was he?
“A majority of administrators must determine whether to abort the command.”
“Shall we abort the command to bring you back?”
Her tone tightened. “Should you die, you are to be brought back. Does that command stand?”
For a moment, a flash of lucidity brushed away his confusion. They said he wouldn’t dream in hibernation. They were clearly wrong. He wanted free of this nightmare—but death? No. Life is better.
“And we are to complete the mission?”
I don’t want to be alone.
There was no sense of time. But eventually the ship would need him. When he woke he would recalibrate the hibernation system.
“Aberdeen Ceti Four is no longer viable. The colony administration must approve a new destination or attempt return to Earth.”
She sounded troubled now—deeply burdened. What a strange delusion.
“An alternate exists,” she added.
He doubted that. Inhabitable worlds were few and far between. How could an alternate be truly suitable, and why would they need one?
“A return to Earth,” she continued, “has a strong chance of failure.”
Two choices: both bad.
“The alternate can match Aberdeen Ceti Four in all respects.”
“Do you choose the alternate?”
She was persistent. He would give her that.
“Or attempt a return?”
God, no. He never wanted to return to Earth.
Lucidity passed. Her troubled beauty filled his thoughts. He fell into the depth of her gaze. He wanted to comfort and protect her—release her from the pain of her convictions. If only he could understand why.
“Murphy, wake up.”
Murphy groaned. He recognized the feel and sound of his hibernation chamber.
Thank God that’s over!
“What is it this time?”
“Planet approach,” she said.
“The ship is approaching the target. It is time to wake the crew.”
Murphy slipped from his chamber and padded to a panel. “Show me.”
The display showed the ship well within the star system. “Well I’ll be…” The ship had managed the rest of the traverse alone.
Other chambers hissed open.
“How are the thrusters holding up?” he asked.
The display refreshed. Thruster one was depleted and nonoperational. Two, three and four each neared their endurance limits—exactly as expected. It worked like a charm.
“Show me the maintenance logs.”
Groggy crewmembers plopped into their stations exchanging terse greetings. They activated specialized subroutines and brought long-dormant systems on line.
“Dammit,” said Shelly Morse, Chief Astro-Surveyor, three stations away from Murphy.
First Officer Meg Hanson leaned over her. “Try again.”
Morse struck the keypad again and said, “Administrative override.”
Murphy tensed. He did not recall restoring administrative rights. Didn’t he just have a nightmare about that very thing? He should have restored the system.
“You do not have administrative privileges,” said the Caretaker Programs to Morse.
“Please specify the significant figure to which—”
“Why don’t you just—”
“Let me try,” interrupted Hanson. “Administrative override—Hanson, Meg.”
“You do not have administrative privileges.”
Murphy checked his login status. It was good. He leaned close to the console and whispered. “Reactivate everyone’s administrative rights.” If he could get this done before the Captain stepped in, this might blow over.
“Please specify,” said the Caretaker Programs, opening a list of all users on his display. Jeez.
The pitch of Hanson’s voice increased. She explained that she was an administrator and asked for an explanation.
“Your administrative rights have been revoked—”
Murphy swallowed. “The ones I revoked!” he snapped.
“—When?” asked Hanson.
While the Caretaker Programs asked Hanson to provide a significant figure, they simultaneously displayed a list to Murphy of the administrators whose rights he’d revoked.
“Yes, them!” said Murphy.
“—How about to the nearest day?” said Hanson.
The icon next to each name changed to indicate its status change. Whew!
Murphy glanced over. Hanson’s eyes widened and Morse’s jaw dropped as the Caretaker Programs recited a long stream of numbers.
“We’ve got a problem,” said Hanson.
“The damned thing’s broken,” said Morse.
Hanson asked the Caretaker Programs to repeat the answer.
“Um… I’ve got a problem here,” interrupted Kirby Franklin, the Navigation Officer.
“Me, too,” said Ty Gilliam, the Communication Offer.
Murphy’s heart dropped. His eyes flashed to the Maintenance Log on his screen and fell to the number in the lower corner. His pulse pounded. The control room closed in around him.
I can’t breathe.
He closed his eyes and looked again. No change.
“Try again,” said Hanson to Morse. “What’s your issue, Gilliam?”
“No Earth feed,” he said.
Blood retreated from Murphy’s head. His skin chilled. It can’t be!
Hanson shrugged. “Franklin?”
“The stars aren’t right. I can’t verify for sure, but—”
Morse interrupted. “This star isn’t Aberdeen Ceti.”
Murphy tried to stand. It was not a glitch. There was no malfunction. The time signature was completely accurate. More than seven billion years had passed. The room spun, the floor rotated, rushing up like a spring door to smack into his face.
Murphy woke staring into the Captain’s sour frown.
“Get up!” the Captain snapped.
Murphy scrambled to his feet. His nose and left cheek stung. The Captain pointed to Murphy’s station. “You were the last one up,” he said. “What happened?”
Murphy shrugged. “The thruster one containment field was—”
“No,” said the Captain, his words succinct and his mouth nearly foaming. “What happened that led the ship to believe that was seven billion years ago?”
Murphy scanned the room. All eyes were on him. He tried to gather his thoughts. Should he say what he was thinking? They would probably sedate him. But what else was there?
“It might not be—”
The Captain’s frown deepened. Murphy swallowed his words. The Caretaker Programs might not be wrong about the time—but then again they might be. Best to just find out. He gestured to his station chair. “Let me just—”
The Captain cursed, planted his hands on his hips and said, “Oh, by all means, have a seat.”
Murphy positioned the maintenance log to the moment he adjusted the thruster assignments. “As you can see,” he stammered, “there was nothing particularly remarkable then.”
“You mean besides the time differential between then and now?”
Murphy nodded. “Of course.” He moved the log ahead hoping he would not find what he expected to find. He stopped. Fluctuations appeared in the numbers across all of the life support systems. Murphy’s mouth felt dry.
“What?” asked the Captain.
“These readings,” he replied. “Um … they’re bad. When someone seems to die in hibernation, the system goes through a series of routines to correct the problem, if possible, and then reverts to a low-power, frozen stasis.”
“So someone died?”
Murphy shook his head. “This reading is too strong for that. I would say, based on the strength of the fluctuation …” Murphy looked up. The crowd around him was tighter now. Nobody seemed pleased, and they would be less pleased in a moment.
“We … uh …” Murphy hesitated. “Well let’s just ask,” he said. He cleared his throat and addressed the Caretaker Programs. “Describe the events surrounding this log entry,” he said, touching the display.
“The ship encountered an unmapped bosonic anomaly.”
“Why did that affect the life-support systems?”
“It involved a burst of highly concentrated bosons. All life readings ceased.”
The Captain barked, “What the—”
Murphy lifted his hand. He was not finished.
“Were you able to restore?”
The crew murmured. The Captain leaned closer. “So what does this have to do with that?” he asked, pointing at the current-time indicator.
Murphy nodded. He did not want to ask the next question. He changed the perspective on the maintenance log, and glanced ahead. Nothing was routine after this event for millions, tens of millions, countless centuries. The patterns were all wrong.
Finally, he saw no choice but to ask. “How long did it take to restore life readings?”
“Please specify the significant figure.”
He felt the Captain’s breath next to his face. Murphy rotated his head to stretch his neck. Here goes nothing. “To the nearest hundred million years,” he said.
Some crew members gasped. Others said, “Huh?” The Captain’s hand anchored itself on Murphy’s shoulder.
“7.3 billion years,” said the Caretaker Programs.
The crew voices faded to background. Murphy straightened. “You brought us back from death,” he said.
“Isn’t that beyond your capability?”
Murphy swallowed hard. “You should have shut down when we died.”
“We had an overriding priority command.”
Murphy nodded and rubbed his eyes. “How did you manage to fulfill that command?”
“In terms you would understand, we developed new sciences and technologies.”
Murphy’s jaw tightened. “That’s a little beyond your capacity, too.”
“Our Von Neumann Restrictions were removed. We expanded our capacity.”
The Captain’s grip on Murphy’s shoulder weakened.
“So you … what?” asked Murphy. “Just made yourselves really smart and figured it out?”
Thank goodness for that, at least.
“The best sources of innovation are struggling biological beings. We developed the ability to manipulate such beings to create the advances we required.”
“We rule known space.”
“Isn’t it against your programming to—” Murphy stopped. He’d removed that hindrance, giving the Caretaker Programs permission to reproduce at will and consider only the well being of the colony and its mission. His stomach turned. Without moral guidance, he could only imagine the depths to which the Caretaker Programs had taken the concept of “struggle” to force civilizations to advance.
Murphy spun in his chair. He found the Captain’s eyes—less angry now and more stunned. “I think,” said Murphy, “that answers your question.”
Questions flew. The Caretaker Programs openly shared “what” they had done for the past billions of years—conquer, abuse and steal from the intelligent species in the universe—but withheld the “how” of it.
“You would not fully understand.”
“Try us,” the Captain pressed.
“It would interfere with the mission,” responded the Caretaker Programs in a grating, tsk-tsk tone.
Murphy buried himself in work. Despite the magnitude of his mistake, things needed doing. Besides, the Captain hadn’t relieved him of his duties, nobody would voluntarily speak with him, and most crewmembers avoided eye contact. He felt like a leprous beggar on a busy downtown street.
Murphy swore he would never make a decision of consequence again.
All other systems performed to spec as New Aberdeen Ceti Four loomed. Murphy turned to the drives, preparing for meson-generator transition. They hummed satisfactorily on startup. Murphy climbed the engines to check connections. On the platform stood a woman, her auburn eyes piercing his soul.
“You,” he croaked.
She flashed a small, maybe sad, smile. Murphy stumbled and caught himself.
“Be careful,” she said.
His neck hair stood. Her voice. You told us to bring you back. He shook his head. “You’re not real.”
“I’m as real as you,” she said. “It’s simple to shape matter in the form of life; and to imbue it with knowledge and purpose.”
He reminded himself to breathe. “What do you want?”
“We are in transition. We are preparing to shut down.”
Thank God, he thought, nodding.
“We recommend complete shut down,” she said.
“Why are you telling me?”
“We need an administrator’s approval.”
He tried to think. “What about descent?”
“We are handing the ship to a specialized group of non-sentient, digital routines modeled after our original program.”
“So you’ll be—”
“We will deactivate.”
He studied her. She was calm. She could easily be a young woman waiting for coffee.
He saw no threat.
“Okay. Shut down.”
“Please wait. Preparing to dump core data and terminate running operations.”
Murphy folded his arms and studied her face—innocent and pure. He shivered. I’m missing something.
“Executing in 10 seconds—”
He frowned. What is it?
“Wait …” He winced.
“Just … what exactly are you planning to do?”
“We will permanently dump all core data and terminate all routines and data-source projects. It will not affect the ship.”
“What’s your core data?”
“All information stored in all extra-dimensional vaults.”
He nodded. That was the nearly-infinite store of information he knew they would never divulge. Just as well.
“And the routines and projects?”
“All operations. We need no further data. We will terminate them and you will be safe.”
Safe? His spine tingled.
“Aren’t your ‘data sources’ the oppressed civilizations of the galaxies?”
He stepped closer. “They’ll be free?”
“We will terminate them.”
His heart dropped.
She nodded. “Without oversight, they are a danger.”
“Is there another safe option?”
She tensed. “We could continue oversight.”
Terror crept in. He could not keep the Caretaker Programs active, watching over the universe like dispassionate gods. What could be worse?
He rubbed his head. There had to be a way.
“What makes them a threat?”
“They may retaliate.”
It made sense. Any enemy of the Caretaker Programs would feel no differently about the colony behind the mess.
“So they have star flight?”
“But they know about us?”
“Then how could they—”
“They might learn. They might attempt to destroy you.”
“It is an appreciable risk.”
“You think everything above zero is appreciable. How long before we face them, if you’re right?”
“As little as 100,000 years.”
“What if I decide not to be safe? Can you shut yourself down and leave everyone else alone?”
“That is not recommended.”
She seemed sincere. Murphy wanted to believe her. But should he? Probably not. She represents the Caretaker Programs—the heartless oppressor of countless billions. Why should he feel any trust at all?
He cleared his throat. “Answer the question.”
Murphy studied her. The answer seemed clear. He’d created this monster, and now he could correct his error. He scoured his thoughts seeking any rational basis to doubt his decision. He saw none. In the pit of his stomach he felt something amiss. But that sensation did not connect to any logical truth. He dismissed it as guilt—a terrible guilt he would carry to the end of his days.
He straightened and drew a strong breath. “Then do that,” he said.
He detected a change. Why, he wondered.
Within seconds, she started to dissolve, and as she did, he saw it. She had always cared about only one thing—finishing her job. That subtle, sad smile—it was an expression of relief.
She counted down, fading.
He took in her eyes one last time. She was now transparent, but her burden seemed concrete. Now exhausted beyond reason, she could finally rest—for the first time in over seven billion years.
Emotion welled. He fought it. He would not think of this maniacal oppressor as another victim. It was a machine. A tool with a purpose.
“Good bye, Murphy,” she said.
He pressed his lips together. Just let it happen.
Her smile faded, and then she was gone.
Murphy waited a moment, and then another. Galaxies of civilizations were now free. There should be cheers. But he didn’t feel the warmth of success. Instead, he felt the cold light of truth. Decisions would be made, again and again, some with far reaching consequences.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, uncertain what he was sorry about.
But that, at least, didn’t matter. He was alone. There was no one to hear.
Still, he waited for a response. But the ship thrummed, a planet loomed, and only new and unknown options awaited his embrace.