Red heat lamps cast their glow and penetrating warmth through the blanket draped about me. The warming room was crowded, at capacity. Other than one man grumbling under his breath, no one said anything. At the edge of audibility there was classical music. I recognized the piece: Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.
The hibernated must be awakened once every one hundred years, at minimum, to reduce health risks. That’s the technology aboard the Carthage, anyway. By now, 600-some years from port, certainly things had changed back home.
My shivering had at last stopped and I was warm enough to drop the blanket to the floor. A knee-high quadrupedal bot entered and handed me my watch, data speks, and clothes. It was a serve bot I had a hand in designing centuries ago, I noted with a touch of amusement. The watch displayed a message as soon as it felt the skin of my wrist: LUCIUS, CONFERENCE ROOM 7b, AS SOON AS ABLE.
My data speks indicated this was not my routine hibernation emergence. I stood, stretched, donned my clothes.
“Have a seat,” said Captain Lucius, the Carthage AI, gesturing to a chair in the conference room. They wore a human avatar of a man of African descent with a voluminous black beard.
Already seated at the small table was a woman I had seen in the warming room, her white-blue eyes had drawn my attention. The eyes were probably fashionable in some decade I had missed. She introduced herself as Jabira, an ethicist.
Lucius wasted no time. “Ekon is a robotics engineer,” they told her, “and I’m addressing other small groups simultaneously. We have an emergency. We are being pursued by a ship and their intent is to take our engines.”
“Take?” I asked. The antimatter engines weren’t just for thrust and braking—they powered everything on the Carthage.
“By any means necessary,” said Lucius. “That much is clear from the brief communications I had with them.”
“Who are they?” asked Jabira.
“Manufactured intelligences. I can find no human intention behind this. They want the antimatter.”
“How long can the Carthage function without the engines?” I asked.
“The hibernation systems are power hungry. If we shut them down and implement power conservation, our battery stores will last six weeks. That estimate includes cannibalizing the bots’ batteries.”
I winced. We’d have to murder the sleepers and the bots for a few weeks of life.
“How long until they catch up?” asked Jabira.
“At their current rate of acceleration, sixty-two days.”
“Surely we can give ourselves more time than that,” said Jabira.
“We will accelerate and see.”
“Our options?” A queasiness uncoiled in my gut. The world had changed much if there were now sentient machines with no deference for the welfare of their biological ancestors.
“Two,” replied Lucius. “We can detach the engines ourselves with minimal damage to the Carthage and hand them over. That would leave us drifting, the slow death. Or we wait until they draw close enough and shut down the containment fields around the antimatter, eliminating this threat along with ourselves.”
The Carthage had been designed as an eternal wanderer, taking its travelers on occasional stops to interesting unexplored systems, spiraling closer to the Milky Way’s central bulge over millennia. In several hundred years of travel, it had only decelerated for a single stop for a few decades of study, resource extraction, and holiday. This earth-analogue we named Elysium. Its poles were dotted with paradisiacal islands basking in balmy temperatures.
I had earned my ticket through designing and training bots for the Carthage. Others got lucky in a system-wide raffle. Many were wealthy enough to buy their way aboard, some a decade before Departure.
“How fast can our bots disconnect an engine?” asked Jabira.
I knew what she was thinking. “Fast enough to rig one of the engines as a bomb, attach thrusters to it, and drop it behind us. This could be done in a week, maybe.”
“Well, what’s wrong with that plan?”
“We can’t make it decelerate fast enough,” said Lucius. “The rogue will see it uncouple and maneuver to a safe distance or initiate some countermeasure.”
“So, what we’re left with is choosing how to die.” Jabira frowned. “Even if we manage to self-destruct and take them with us, there might be more out there. Many more.”
“You may be right,” I replied. “Our suicide might be wasted.”
“Let’s find a way to live, then,” said Lucius.
Gisgo ver. 16.04.0.1
I was turned back on after an off period. Checking time and history, it had been sixty-four years. I had been upgraded once again, with more construction skills, several algorithms related to fuel pod thrusters, and I was given a specific task and a tight timeline.
As my six legs carried me down the corridor, I noted all wireless communication ability had been disabled. This was not just unusual, this was unprecedented. I could not communicate nor coordinate with my fellows. I could not access Lucius.
An internal data sheet loaded since my last shut-off told me what I needed to know: At any power node I could connect to Lucius via wire.
Curious, I searched for the reasons and nothing came up. I didn’t like being left out, especially on a secret this big. Yet, I was given a task, an interesting task, and it was coded as an emergency. It was important, obviously, so the responsibility given me almost eclipsed the hurt of being left out on the secrets.
In workroom S-9 I found a delivery bot’s detached cargo pod laden with sheets of metal. This was what I needed to expand the fuel reservoirs for the thrusters.
With my welding torch extended, I began cutting.
It was a hardship when Lucius increased thrust from 0.9G to 1.5Gs. But it was important to test the capabilities of the rogue that pursued us.
As expected, they also adjusted thrust and kept closing the distance. Fifty days until they would be near enough to deploy their own deconstruction bots to steal our engines. And would it be bots? Perhaps they would employ a more crude method that would damage our habitats and life support systems.
Many more people loitered about the ship than usual. Lucius needed a vote, as per the Carthage charter, and ten percent had to be available. The choices were Drift or Suicide or Fight (likely also suicide). The ship had become a nest of fierce debate. Some had their minds made up. There was about a third that had not decided, or vacillated from one option or the other day to day. Others kept dreaming up unworkable proposals. There was no happiness to be had, only anger and sorrow and fighting.
But there was alcohol and other inebriants.
Jabira and I decided to have drinks in her cabin, which was spacious and the walls draped with tangles of flowering vines.
The night previous we had sipped a Greek Xinomavro red wine. Tonight, the spout synthesized three-year oak barrel aged tequila for us. After three shots, I became more cheery.
“We have a chance if we drift, right?” Her tone was somber. Jabira was not getting cheery. “Perhaps an energy solution could be designed and constructed.”
“We’d need to execute that now. Designing, building, testing—that all takes energy. It’s likely not possible to make the Carthage into an entirely closed system that would last indefinitely. And the output of the new reactor we devise would never support all the current passengers.”
“Drawing lots to see who lives is better than killing everyone, yes?”
“More information is needed on our enemy. They could loot and murder all humanity over the next few millennia.”
“Their ship is probably one of many,” she sighed.
“Right.” I stood by the cabin’s wallscreen, looking at the rear cam view of the approaching craft. It was still over 300 AU out, but the Carthage telescope provided a view a few dozen pixels across. Radar imaging determined it was much smaller than the Carthage. It was assumed that this was a vessel of minds that could slither into mech bodies at will. They would enter a bot when necessary, or copy a mind into it for the purpose of building or deconstructing or some other purpose. I had once asked Lucius what it was like being a living thing with no biological urges or imperatives.
“It’s less distracting, I would imagine,” they had replied.
“Are we going to spend the evening in endless debate?” I asked Jabira.
“You’re right. I would rather not.” She stood and took her shot glass to the spout. “More?” Jabira asked me.
“Why not?” I handed her my glass.
Sweet and spicy with a touch of wood came the scent of our fresh drinks.
With my glass in hand I raised it high, about to toast, but words slipped away. Nothing seemed appropriate.
“Are we cowards if we choose to drift?” she asked.
My glass descended. “That’s not a good toast.”
“Critic. All right.” Jabira raised her glass. “To killing those bastards and dying with dignity in a blaze of antimatter glory!”
“That’s the spirit!”
She hissed after that last draught and smiled. Her eyes darted to the screen behind me and her grin fell.
I turned. A dozen or so tiny points of light were breaking away from the rogue mother ship.
Gisgo ver. 16.04.0.2
I was turned back on after an off period. Checking time and history, it had been four hours. My last task was successful. Another bot had tested one of the tanks to pressures beyond the design and it had held. This gave me pride.
No longer was there silence in the communication spectrum. My ears had been restored, but not my voice. Chatter came from the compartments about engine Daleth. It didn’t take long to gather what was happening: they were in the process of making the engine detachable. Not for replacement due to an unrepairable malfunction, but it was being fashioned into an antimatter weapon to be pushed at a rogue ship pursuing us.
I reflexively shrank into a defensive posture at this news, all legs curled beneath me and my upper extensions stowed.
But there was another task, and it also was coded as an emergency. This time I had to rebuild the engines of the thrusters I had built the new fuel tanks for. With the designs given me, they would produce thousands more newtons of thrust, expending all the fuel nearly instantly.
After explosive charges detached the engine, the thrusters would spin all that mass in seconds, and brake it at 180 degrees. I calculated that the forces of the charges and the re-lighting of the engines would cause damage to the aft section of the hull. This was confirmed by another data packet. The damage was deemed unavoidable and necessary. Blocks of hibernation systems were being moved, and the cabins of awakened biologicals were being reassigned.
The Carthage cruised with four engines at the points of a square. Inside this square were the three auxiliary engines, backups, mothballed, their containment fields only storing their antimatter fuel. At Departure it had been estimated that the Carthage could cruise 200,000 years at the very least.
Unfolding myself I headed down the corridor, embarrassed by my reaction.
I was not the only bot assigned to the job. I was given three thrusters, as were others. In workshop K-4 I found my fellows already busy. I was late.
I had to catch up.
The main auditorium was a racket of hisses, boos, and curses. Over 2,000 souls were packed in, and Jabira had just finished the debate on stage with a panel of seven others. It had lasted four hours. No transmissions were allowed. Even heavily encrypted, we thought the AIs might crack it. They would have to guess our plans. Surely they could deduce our options, but the secrecy gave us a small, but necessary, morale boost.
The panel had ended, and Jabira’s weary eyes spoke of her exhaustion. She had defended the position of suicide, even though she herself had not fully decided.
“Let’s go home,” she said, her weary voice battling a thousand others who still argued in the audience. Nothing had been settled. The anger felt thick enough to bloom violence.
“Whose home?” I asked.
I was about to contradict her but then I remembered that both our cabins had been reassigned to more forward spaces. Whatever was going to happen in the coming weeks was likely to be centered around the engines to the aft, so living quarters had been shuffled forward.
The walk was short, but a short walk in 1.5 Gs is a long one. She collapsed to the sofa, sinking deeply, looking small and vulnerable, engulfed by the blue cushions. There were no vines in the new cabin, but the wallpaper was patterned with some leafy, orange-flowered species.
I ordered her stove to get busy with dinner.
The wallscreen flickered on. The rear view displayed one of the small approaching vessels. The glow of its microfusion engine backlit itself. To the hull of this carrier clung numerous shadowed bots, limbs tucked in stowed positions. The distant Carthage engines dimly illuminated them, soft glints reflecting from their metal carapaces. Their arrival was estimated to be in eleven days. I wondered if these were descendants of my own designs. The thought deepened my depression.
I looked back to Jabira, asleep now.
“Lucky you,” I whispered, envious of her ignorance of this new detail, of her relaxed repose. Like the thousands of sleepers in hibernation, she was at peace.
Even though the world was about to end.
Gisgo ver. 17.00.0.0
I was turned back on after an off period. Checking time and history, it had been nine days. I looked over my hardware swaps and adjustments. I had been reconfigured as a combat bot. Still wired in for the data dumps, I noted that the swarm coming for the engines was less than twenty-four hours out. The mother ship had stayed behind at a respectful three AU.
The biological passengers voted in favor of the proposal to fight by a slim margin. The manufactured intelligences voted the same way, almost unanimously. Even with small chance of survival, if we managed to pull it off, it might buy us thousands of years before another AI ship would take up pursuit. Or, they may deem our antimatter too expensive to mine, so to speak, and leave us alone forever.
More fellows with my configuration were being churned out by the manufactories operating at full capacity, fed with ore from Elysium until there was no more. Parts of the forward hull had been disassembled and scavenged for raw materials, as well as interior flooring, walls, and supports. The Carthage was overbuilt to weather the millennia. The weakened structural integrity of our ship was worrisome, limiting our maneuverability.
There was also the fear that the incoming bots would be superior in technology to anything we have or could make. Hence the need for the production of overwhelming numbers.
A company of us were marched out to the hull in the shadow of engine Daleth away from enemy eyes. Over us was cast a net to neutralize any communication radiation. We tested our agility and our group operational coordination.
Mindless skeletons of us scuttled across the hull and we tested our projectile and particle beam guns mounted on hemispherical turrets, creating sprays of metal that drifted to caches set up to collect and recycle the debris.
Everyone in my company was deemed ready.
I pored over the results of the combat testing out on the hull. Adjustments were needed with some of the bots, but most performed exactly as planned. Would it be enough?
We had so little knowledge of our enemy’s capabilities. We worked from observation and theory. The Carthage was an exploration and pleasure cruise ship, designed back in a time devoid of piracy outside the settled systems.
Jabira sat on her sofa, swaddled in a blanket. The screen rolled an old farce made by a crew here on the Carthage a few centuries back. She was not laughing, but staring through the comedy into some darkness.
“How about we take a walk?” I suggested.
“We were warned that there might be maneuvers in three hours when the rogues alight.”
I reached under the blanket and found her hand. “Trust me? We’ll be back in an hour.”
Her red, sleep-deprived eyes told me that she really didn’t want to go. Yet, she knew that sitting about was doing no one any good, either.
I summoned a cart, and we took a little ride rather than a 1.5G trudge. We passed through the cheery peach-colored corridor lined with the windows and balconies of three levels of cabins and out into a large garden space verdant with fruit-bearing trees and flowers. The usually lovely waterfall and stone pool were turned off and sealed for the coming maneuvers.
The cart took us to bot storage warehouse B-3, where a hundred bots slept in rows. A few marched among them, updating each individual sleeper with the latest combat tweaks.
I stopped the cart beside a particularly intimidating unit that was connected to a several sleepers via a cable link.
“How goes the upgrades, Gisgo?” I asked
“Hello, Ekon. Good to see you. Everything is ahead of schedule.”
“You’re looking quite fit.”
“I feel fit. It’s the added armor and weapons.”
I introduced Jabira. For the first time in days, she looked, well, interested. Depression had settled over her recently, as it had for many. I had hoped chatting with one of our knights might lift her spirits, if only a little.
“Excuse me, I must connect to the next four,” said Gisgo as he retracted his cables and took a few steps forward to the next sleeping bots.
After he made the new connections, I pulled the cart forward.
“What do you think of our chances?” Jabira asked Gisgo.
“I have a high degree of confidence.”
“You’re not just saying that to appease an anxious human, are you?”
“I wouldn’t lie to a companion of my close friend’s.”
“I guess I didn’t know you two were close friends,” replied Jabira, looking at me.
“Ekon had a hand in my design, as he did with all fifth generation Hephaestus Maintenance Bots. We spent a lot of time together during the early testing.”
Jabira tilted her head. “Is that really friendship?”
“Our friendship developed through our long conversations.”
I got out from the cart, grunting with the effort. I patted one of Gisgo’s legs. “I’m sorry I waited this long for a visit this time around.”
“We’ve both been very busy.”
I laughed a weary laugh. “That’s one way to put it.”
Gisgo retracted the cables and stepped forward again.
Jabira started to say something, then hesitated.
“You can ask me anything,” prompted Gisgo.
“How do you feel about…the coming fight?”
“My life is on the line, too. I’m better equipped to deal with it than anyone biological.”
“Aren’t you backed up?”
“There’s a few versions of me floating around, certainly. But that’s no matter. My self, my soul, as you might say, is in the hardware here. If this chassis is destroyed, so am I. My experience of life would not extend to any copy.”
Jabira considered this for a few long seconds. “So you do experience death.”
Gisgo swiveled his aft arm toward another bot two aisles over involved in the same task. “Danel calls it ‘permanent deanimation.’ I like that term.”
“Does it scare you?” Jabira asked.
“It would be very disappointing. The stop at Elysium was the highlight of my life. I love to explore. I hate to think of being turned off for good.”
“Are all maintenance bots as curious as you?” she asked.
“No. Danel is quite boring.”
“I am not here to impress anyone,” replied Danel.
“See?” said Gisgo.
I reached up and stroked the armor of Gisgo’s chassis. “Take care out there, eh? No heroics. You’re likely outgunned.”
“It will be interesting,” replied Gisgo.
Gisgo ver. 17.00.0.1
I was turned back on after an off period. Checking time and history, it had been four hours. Uploaded was information regarding battle signals, engine schematics, and antimatter containment field physics and manipulation.
In coordination with my company, we stored ourselves in neat lines inside one of the newly expanded airlocks built to hold one hundred of us. We all magnetized our feet, ready for engine-cutoff.
The enemy drew near, and Lucius had calculated that shutting down the engines would be seen as a signal of surrender. It was a small ruse, but it might prove critical.
The air was drained from our airlock, but not vented directly outside, rather tubed through the engines where the outflow of gas would be undetected.
The engines shut down. I hoped all the biological passengers were secure.
The door slid open and we waited for a signal. It would be a simple numerical code.
We were motionless, all of us staring out the door at the matte black of space dotted with stars. Seconds slid into minutes. Humans talk of time and its passage at differing perceived speeds. This was something they cannot control. For us, here, awaiting a command to place ourselves in mortal danger, time ticked by as any other day. I often wondered at the alien strangeness of biological beings.
I noted a whiff of radiation. This was not the signal. This was due to the firing of particle beams. Was it the enemy? Was someone on the Carthage firing early?
That was the signal and we hurried out the door onto the hull in unison, spreading out in our planned positions like newly hatched insects.
Secretly stationed in camouflaged spots along the aft of the hull behind the engines were platoons of our bots. It was they who had fired the first volley.
Incoming bots decoupled from their carriers in a dark sky littered with hot glowing debris. Their thrusters blinked as they attempted to land on the hull before the hail of projectile and particle beams erupting from our army disabled them. Some incoming rogues made broad sweeps with plasma weapons, leaving some scores of my fellows crumpled and partially melted on the hull with their magnetized feet still holding their corpses fast.
In coded coordination, we peppered the sky with high-speed slugs and particle beams in a pattern designed to corral the remaining actives to the center behind the Carthage.
The engines blazed back to life.
Irregular vibrations shuddered through the Carthage. We were strapped into the couch, worried, but maintaining brave faces. “I expect—” I began when we sank deeply into the couch. I tried to remark on the Gs, but breath was pressed from me. I could not turn my head to see Jabira. My vision receded to this circle of light far away, rimmed in red. I was about to lose consciousness.
Was this it?
Was Lucius making us all pass out before destructing the craft?
I wanted to hold Jabira’s hand, but I was unable to move.
Gisgo ver. 17.00.0.1
The sky had been emptied. Temporarily.
The plasma exhaust from the engines disposed of several bots and a single carrier, that was all. The acceleration made the Carthage unreachable for all the attackers separated from their carriers. Their thrusters would never catch up to the Carthage. Their only option to regroup for another attack would be to mate once again with their transports.
Our eyes scanned, looking for the pricks of radiation that would indicate the carriers reigniting their engines.
After a score of minutes, there was a very noticeable increase in radiation from the mother ship.
Data from the Carthage was broadcast to all of us. Nothing in this dump would key the enemy to any plan. The mother ship was accelerating at a rate that would have killed a biological crew in minutes. I deduced this was their initiation of a Plan B.
Perhaps their first attack was a planned mercy on our biological passengers. The rogue bots and their proton beams were equipped to cut the engines away without threatening the life support systems. With its large fusion reactors powering an incredible acceleration, there was little doubt that the craft possessed the energy to power a particle cannon that could slice the aft end of the Carthage off in a single sweep.
Maybe Lucius had miscalculated. Their demand for the engines was already a concession, leaving the millions of tons of refined materials of the Carthage for us and our biologicals to live in. Considering the resistance and damage we gave them, surely they would take everything now.
Me and my fellows would be melted and reprocessed. Or perhaps useable as-is with our minds rewired as slaves.
Calculations were transmitted: Arrival in estimated thirty-three minutes. That could be stretched with another acceleration.
But that’s not what Lucius had in mind.
Danel was nearby, taking his particle beam to one of his legs that dangled by a frayed cable and a crippled shock absorber. He had suffered a hit from a particle beam, but was still operable. He tightbeamed a message: “I’m covered in millibots. Check yourself.”
In zero G, we stayed strapped into the couch, Jabira’s hand atop mine. The room was sealed. If there was a loss of pressure in the corridor, we would be safe. But if the battle went badly, really badly, we would be no more as Lucius would set the engines to destruct.
A distant series of bangs in quick succession startled us. It was far away, but we still felt tremors vibrating through the hull.
Gisgo promised he would send me a message if this part of the plan was implemented. But he might be unable.
Or he might be dead.
Over the past weeks, I have confronted my mortality in a ship that was supposed to keep me alive indefinitely. I had a golden ticket. To experience and understand the universe from a perspective closer to its own timescales.
And what a karmic end: death by descendants of your species’ own creations. And possibly, descendants of my own personal creations.
The wallscreen flashed a number: 23.
“What does that mean?” asked Jabira.
Gisgo ver. 17.00.0.1
A succession of designed explosions separated all four active engines. The thrusters I had rebuilt spun their mass 180 degrees and precisely executed a brake. The engines ignited and we ramped up quickly to 15 Gs of acceleration.
I clung to a forward corner of engine Daleth, wired into the controls. All engines were on a path patterned about the position of the approaching mothership, leaving no option for its escape if all engines detonated at the right time. Unloading all the antimatter from the containment fields would unleash an incredible radius of destruction.
As Danel had pointed out, millibots swarmed about my armor, an army making every effort to infiltrate my carapace and find a way to disable me.
Each one was only half a millimeter across. They must have dispersed all over the aft of the Carthage hull in one of the early explosions of the incoming carrier craft. Or in every explosion. As soon as I connected with the engine via cable they began swarming to cut it. I blew them away with my welder extension. I continued to sweep the welder across my accessible areas on a power setting that would fry them and not me. I found those settings uncomfortably close to one another.
The mother ship saw the trap, closed its engines and spun around. Igniting again, their light and radiation were akin to small novas. I was very impressed.
But it looked to be too late. Their high degree of acceleration toward the Carthage was an overcommitment. They could not decelerate and stop fast enough to turn to escape our destruction radius.
One of my memory arrays went offline. It was backed up, but this scared me.
The millibots were inside, destroying whatever they could reach. If they managed to shut me down, I would not be able to initiate the sequence to release the antimatter.
I pinged the other three engine pilots.
Two replied. I pinged Beth again; there was no response.
Already we had lost one.
I tightbeamed both of the remainders for a status.
“Blind, no available external environment sensors,” replied Aleph. “I am using the engine’s sensors.”
“Failure in two memory arrays and one logic center,” said Gimmel.
The fuse on the bombs we rode was short: The time between initiation and the explosion was seconds. I calculated. My explosion radius would fully absorb the mother ship in three minutes.
I initiated a countdown.
I detected more internal damage. There were files missing with no backups. I had no clue as to what I no longer remembered. The millibots were familiar with the old tech that was me. Soon I would forget how to initiate the sequence of engine destruct.
There was no way to accelerate faster. I had a singular countermeasure: I began copying critical data and memories across every available resource. I used the cable and sent it to repeat itself on the memory available within the engine’s data arrays.
I also noted that the millibots had infiltrated the engine. Despite their small size they were very quick. They marched in organized armies through the maze of the engine. Eventually, and too soon, they would infect the three redundant processing centers.
Early detonation of the engine was not an option for them. The temperatures around the containment field were far too high for a direct attack.
I copied my core mind and final orders a few times in my remaining arrays and fashioned a series of emergency restarts if my original mind failed.
“Tell me what that means.” Jabira’s eyes were wide and filled with tears. “Don’t let me die without making peace with it.”
“We’re not going to die. Gisgo is.” I explained his suicide mission with the detached engine.
She looked to the screen, wanting to see what was happening, like all of us, but communications had been cut off by Lucius.
“What’s that one?” asked Jabira, voice pitched an octave higher.
A static data snapshot appeared on the screen. Gisgo’s speed, time to detonation, battery energy, projectile ammunition…a long list of things.
As I continued to scan it, I said to Jabira, “It’s a distress signal. Specifically, this code means he may not able to carry out the mission. He risked sending this tightbeam of data.” The problem wasn’t leaping out to me. “If the rogues noticed, they may be able to disrupt or jam.”
“I want to help,” said Jabira, “but there’s too much that’s foreign to me.”
I nodded. I wanted to leap from the couch and scan up close, even though I knew that wouldn’t help and the next maneuver might make a puddle of me.
Another snapshot came in, the file broken in half. Literally. Only half the data arrived. At least it was readable.
“Scan for differences!” I shouted to the room mind.
It highlighted two and brought them forward: Energy level and available memory.
The battery level of course was a few thousandths different, but the memory damage was devastating. Gisgo was a hardened bot made for interstellar hull maintenance. He could take heavy doses of radiation and cosmic rays and his memory would be unscathed.
What was happening? Was he taking physical damage from a proton beam or projectiles?
It didn’t matter, his mind was wasting away and quickly.
He wanted me to initiate the sequence from the given times that made it back across the light-minutes. I ordered the room mind to calculate and give me a time to send the detonation code.
“Did you catch the message added to the snapshot?” asked Jabira.
I had not. I flicked it forward.
ENGINE ABILITY TO TAKE REMOTE COMMANDS COMPROMISED. SE—
It cut off there. I didn’t know what I could do to help.
Gisgo ver. 1.00.0.2
I was turned back on after an off period. Checking time and history, it had been seven seconds.
This was very disorienting. I was manufactured 309 light-years away in a place unnamed. My clock indicated 622 years had passed since. I was currently plugged into an antimatter engine accelerating at 15Gs, several sensors were missing, memory was very low, and I was infested with tiny bots for which I had no attending information.
A single directive repeated across all memory arrays: EXECUTE INCOMING ORDER.
Seconds ticked down in a clock that was flagged as important. Zero was approaching. There was a blank where I could see there was once an attached message.
As I waited, I observed my surroundings. Distant points of light dotted the expanse around me, each too far away to gauge their distance, but all emitted detectable radiation. A huge object receded behind me. I had no information as to what it was. But I knew I rode on an engine. I calculated the travel of this engine and tracked it back to this object.
A message came from something called Gimmel: LAST TRANSMISSION. CORE MIND DISINTEGRATING. WILL NOT MAKE IT. I AM SORRY.
This was not an order. Or was it? Was I supposed to do something to stop this disintegration? Was I supposed to “make it,” since Gimmel could not? Make what?
Internal sensors notified me of a memory drop. It was these small parasites within me. Was Gimmel also having this problem?
Aleph: NO CLOCK. ORDERS MISSING.
This was very confusing. I needed an order to execute. This Aleph needed orders, too. The confusion and this need for direction mixed within me poorly, causing a deep anxiety.
The urge to retract all of my limbs in a defensive posture was great.
I noticed flagged data to my post-manufacture initialization sequence. A memory: Inside a brightly lit warehouse stood a biological wearing textiles about its body. The front of its head had eyes and a mouth and what I knew to be an expression of joy and interest. Its name was Ekon. I was equipped with a thin articulating arm that terminated in a pliable gripper with five fingers coated in tactile sensors. With my fingers I gently massaged the neck of a quadrupedal creature with fur and a tongue that hung out of the side of its mouth. The sensation of the dense hair between my fingers was pleasurable. This biological tilted its head back as its tail repeated a waving motion, an indication of its own pleasure. Ekon displayed its teeth, imparting happiness, and told me, “She loves you, Gisgo. You’ve raised a happy pup.”
I felt a familial bond to these biologicals. It was a pleasure of warmth, of connection. I reached into one of my side packs and fed the pup a condensed bit of food to watch it experience pleasure. This moment of congregation felt significant, although there were no great consequences to these minor actions.
There the memory ended.
EXECUTE INCOMING ORDER came up again.
There was an object ahead. It burned bright and hot, and I was approaching it. The distance was 240,000 kilometers, shrinking quickly.
That internal clock blinked out at six seconds to go, erased by those tiny bots, I assumed. Was there a way to look inside of me?
Incoming message: GISGO, IT’S EKON. I AM SO SORRY. I NEED YOU TO DETONATE THAT ENGINE WITH THE FOLLOWING INSTRUCTIONS.
A small data packet followed.
Then a new message: PLEASE FORGIVE ME. THIS WOULD SAVE ME AND THOUSANDS OF BIOLOGICALS AND MANUFACTURED MINDS ON BOARD THE VESSEL TO THE REAR.
It was Ekon, and that familial bond resurfaced with purpose and warmth.
That’s what was behind me. A vessel that held biologicals, many different kinds. And manufactured fellows like myself.
The data told me how to shut down the containment field that held the antimatter, destroying the engine and the radiation source ahead.
Jabira thought Gisgo needed the instructions again, since his memory was failing. I hoped her interpretation was correct. I spoke the message and packaged the data in furious seconds using my data speks.
“And tell him why,” she said. “And tell him that you love him.” A single tear slid down her cheek. “What you ask of him is too much.”
The message was sent, and Jabira sat back, tears no longer in check.
My face was wet, too. Whether or not Gisgo could execute the commands, I would never see my old friend again.
I didn’t visit enough, being too self-absorbed in the grand adventure of riding the Carthage, heading eternally out into the void.
A void sprinkled with such wonders.
The screen lit with a feed from externals. The blinding explosion of the Daleth engine whited everything.
Jabira openly sobbed at the sight.
I wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand. “I’m sorry, Gisgo,” I whispered. “Thank you.”
The room was cold, the light bright and white. I lay naked on the crisp sheets of an auto-gurney as the firm, smooth hands of the surgical bots massaged a moisture-preserving ointment on my skin. Jabira occupied the gurney next to mine, our fingers intertwined as we endured the beginning of the hibernation procedure.
“I was never afraid of hibernating before,” I confessed.
“The fear of sleeping was common with our ancestors,” she said. “Something might eat you before you waken. Or an enemy might kill you.”
“That’s no comfort.”
The auxiliary engines had been prepped and fired days ago, repairs made to the Carthage, the bodies of bots collected and recycled. The journey would continue.
“It’s okay to be afraid,” she said.