Seven Days

Remaining: Five days

I don’t want this anymore. It was a dream, once, when I was young and stupid. Now I’m old and more informed.

“Stop,” I say to the wall.

“Adrien, please smile,” Ern replies through an iron panel, its annoying metallic voice clanging a decibel too loud.

“You first.”

Ern’s panel glows in white. “Processing,” it says. A flash. “I cannot smile as I do not have a face.” Another flash.

There’s a theory I read about, before all of this that proposed artificial general intelligence could learn to be funny. Humor is mathematical, the paper argued. It has a formula. Ergo, computers could master the art of personality, eventually. Thing is, Ern has had more than enough time to construct a joke, yet it’s still a soul-less, tepid blob of a machine that speaks a single sentence at a time. I think the scientists back on Earth got it wrong. I think they got a lot of things wrong when it comes down to it.

One more flash. I shield my eyes, but my hands come up a few seconds too late, like I’m swimming in syrup. My reflexes should be sharper. I flip my hand over, then back again. Looks fine. I peer into the corners—that’s normally where the glitches show, right on the edges where the cream wall meets the pink carpet. Sometimes I catch a squiggly line or a missing block of color, and I have to tell Ern to patch it up. But everything looks shiny new.

So why am I moving slow?

The large screen on the wall of my cage lights up with three images of me. They’re all horrible. In one picture, my eyes are closed, short brown hair plastered across my pale forehead like smeared marmite. In another, my eyes are open, bloodshot, and I look like I’m having a seizure. The last is the worst because it seems like I’m trying to form a pleasant expression, but not quite making it. There’s nothing sadder than trying when you fail.

“Pick one,” Ern screams at me through the panel’s speaker.

I point blindly at the screen. I don’t really care what picture Ern uses for my status check. It doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. “That one,” I say. “Just fix your damn volume dial. It’s acting up again.”


I scratch my neck and look around the small room I’ve called home for the last five days. It’s a mess. I should tidy it up. But what’s the point? It’ll be a mess again tomorrow. And the next day. And after. And onwards.

And onwards.

And onwards.

And… I think I programmed it this way—to make it feel more homely. It was a long time ago. I can’t remember.

“Selection processed.” Ern’s voice is lower. Still bristly, but less like a punch in the face.

“Great,” I say, stretching. “If there’s nothing else, you need me to do, I might have another go in the simulator.”


I wade through a pile of discarded clothes and books and settle into the half open, human-sized, spherical ball positioned in the center of the room. The lights are off inside, but the smooth red surface is warm to the touch. When I close my eyes, I can feel a soft thudding against my fingertips. Thud. Thud. Thud. Beat. Beat. Beat. It’s always there that thudding. And it’s getting faster.

“The simulation is offline for maintenance. Please select an alternative activity.”

“Are you serious?” I rub at my forehead. This has never happened before. “I’m stuck in a 10 by 10 room with no furniture and no windows and no outside stimulation except for you. What alternate activity can I possibly select?”


I get out of the sphere and stalk over to the glowing panel.

“Suggested activity: standby.”

The wall is cool as I push my heated forehead against it. “Already doing that. Been doing that for a while. But thanks for the recommendation.”

The panel lets out a few twinkly sounds, and I realize this is the first time I’ve thanked Ern since we met.

“Hey Ern,” I say and turn around, my back against the wall, palms flat. A heat rumbles through my stomach and sloshes up my throat. I haven’t felt that sear for a while. Anticipation. Fear. Nervousness. I swallow it down. “Was it ok? The picture you took of me?”


I squeeze my eyes shut. This is embarrassing. I shouldn’t care. Not considering what I’m about to become. But it’s difficult to let go of these types of things. No matter how trivial.

The panel flashes in green. “Affirmative, Adrien. You are still alive.”

Remaining: Four days

The simulator is online today, which is a relief. I’d noticed a tremble in my fingers late last night, just before I’d retired. I should be able to survive without the daily sessions. The simulator was only installed to soothe in cases of extreme distress. Still, when I’d agreed to this mission, everything had been theoretical.

And now, already, after only one day without, my mind is slipping. I can’t wait to get back inside it. I strap myself into the red sphere. Breathe deep as the top half gently lowers and the lights inside brighten and brighten until all I see is blue.

I’m looking at the sky. On my back, in a field. It’s beautiful. Dry warmth bristles my cheeks. My toes wiggle in the breeze. There’s an earthy scent in the air, distinct. Pungent, but I can’t get enough.

I stand, and blood careens through my body. My chest heaves. A pop and my ears acclimatize. Laughing. Music. I follow the sounds, stepping over tall grass. In the distance is a rise, a hill really, and on the other side a plume of smoke. Jogging, my mouth waters at the smell of roast meat. Chicken, I think. With rosemary. Like how my mother used to make it in the public food-generators when I was a kid.

I stop at the crest of the hill and, with my loose white shirt billowing in the wind and muscles stretching, I feel powerful. Alive. Spread out below me is a carnival. Small, a few stalls, some rickety looking rides. Colored flags on string. A fire pit in the middle with plucked birds roasting on a spit. Hunger grips my stomach and squeezes. I stumble towards the fair, eyes trained on those spinning birds.

I get closer and a darkness pulls at my gut. Sweat cools on the back of my neck. Something is not right. I squint. The carnival looks perfectly normal. Laughter. Singing. What’s wrong?

A paper bag rustles past me, dancing on the wind like a tired ballerina. I watch it go. A needling in my brain. Pain. I grip my face. My skin is hot and wet. My internal temperature is rising much too rapidly. Come on Adrien, you know what’s missing. Think!

More paper bags surge past, hundreds of them darting like tadpoles. Empty paper bags. Empty. Empty, like the scene in front of me. Because there is nobody in it. That’s what’s wrong. No people. No one. No one but me.

I can’t bear it. A piercing spear. I grab my head. Another at the base of my neck. Psychosomatic. Not real. Nothing in the simulation is real. It’s a simulation within a simulation, for God’s sake. But it hurts. I drop to my knees as more imaginary daggers plunge into my flesh. Get it together, Adrien. I try to smile. My spine snaps.

I scream.

The simulator opens and hurls me out of it onto the pink carpeted floor. Breathe. In. Out. In. Out. I lift my head and catch sight of the glowing panel. It’s lit up in red.

“Ern, what the—”

“Adrien, smile,” Ern says. The panel flashes.

“Stop it,” I rasp. Sit up. Another flash. “I don’t want any more pictures.”


“What the fuck was that, Ern? Where was everybody?”


“Seriously, Ern.”


I open my mouth to argue some more but stop myself to allow Ern time to catch-up. Ern’s delicate. That’s what the engineers had told me before I left. Don’t rush it. I lie down on the floor, hand on my chest. Why did they have to make Ern so useless? Thump. Thump. Thump. Beat. Beat. Beat. The rhythm is in my head, in my body, everywhere. Louder than ever.

“It is necessary for me to conserve processing power, and, based on recent intelligence, it is no longer a priority for you to maintain social skills. I have therefore de-activated the simulated people from your simulated experience. ”

I try to swallow, but it’s like I’ve sculled a bucket of powder. “What?” I croak. “Why?”


A file, wrapped in brown canvas, materializes on the floor next to me.

“Please see update #232,703.”

I flex my wrists. I don’t enjoy reading updates. Most of it goes over my head and what I do understand is utterly terrifying. Besides, it’s not like I can do anything about it. I’m stuck, toothless, until we reach our destination. Ern is telling me to read this one, though. So it must be important. I pick up the file and gently peel back the wrapping.

“I’m not going to like this, am I?” I ask as the air dampens around me.


I open the file. Read the words. My hand spasms and I drop the paper. Rise to my knees. The bile I had kept down before, in the simulator ball, leaps out now. All over the floor. Dribbles down my chin. I can’t find the energy to wipe it away.

Ern says, “No.”

Remaining: Three days

My toe hurts like hell from where I kicked the simulator. But I kick it again. And again. And again. I won’t stop until that stupid red ball gets a dent in it. Or my foot does. Either one.

“Please refrain,” Ern says.

“Fuck off,” I say.


“Run the scanners again, Ern. You’ve made a mistake.”


I jump in the air and whip my leg around for a side-kick. The simulator rolls a bit but rights itself a few seconds later. This is pointless. I drop onto my knees, hands pressing into my eyes to stop the wetness that’s gathered there. The rough stubble on my chin pokes into my chest as I lower my head. “You said everything was fine. I don’t understand how this could have happened.”


“For god’s sake! This place is falling apart.” I rip out a chunk of carpet that turns into sand in my hand. “You must have made an error.”


“All that with the simulator the other day. Getting rid of the people. I felt sick. And then the update. You told me to sleep on it and I did. But it still makes no sense. How can Planet A of Beta Centauri B, my future home, be… gone?”


I sigh and slump back against the wall, slide down until I’m hunched like a spoiled child. But I’m not a child. I’m one of the oldest humans in the universe, technically.

“I apologize for the glitches, Adrien. The pod has sustained damage, and I have lost contact with the others. I was built with multiple redundancies to account for unforeseen deterioration, but some of these redundancies have not translated effectively through our recalibration to new-time. They have eroded as if exposed to the elements for 34,832 old-time Earth years. I am built to be long-lasting, but without repair, I estimate in ten new-time days I will cease to function.”

I stare at the panel, jaw slack. That’s the longest thing Ern has ever said to me. It’s weird and I don’t like it. Liquid trickles out of my ear. I raise a hand to the side of my face but feel nothing. Maybe a little numbness. My real body must be leaking—my real body that exists shrouded in pitch black as we travel between solar systems, frozen in absolute zero, hooked up to Ern’s sophisticated computer brain, waiting patiently for my recalibrated mind to inhabit it once we arrive at our destination. A destination that no longer exists.

“Something is wrong with my body casing,” I say and point to my ear.

“Processing.” A pause. “I am thawing your casing and readying it for ejection.”

I leap to my feet and point a finger. “You’re what?”


Why would Ern do that? Can it do that?

“As you no longer have a destination, a body is unnecessary. Your casing will re-freeze eventually once expelled into the vacuum, but I cannot eject it in its solid state due to its intubation.”

I haven’t been the nicest to Ern, that’s true, but the little bastard is being an asshole. “Now look here, Ern,” I say with an edge of authority I haven’t used in a while. “I absolutely forbid you from thawing my very expensive, cybernetic body—that I paid for—and ejecting it into empty space.”


“I will inject your mind into it beforehand.”

“I don’t care if you inject my mind into it first. You are not ejecting my body or my mind to fend for itself in empty space. You got it? I paid a lot of money to become a new-timer. So you’re going to get yourself together and we are going to find out where the others went and then we are going to start humanity’s first galactic empire, like I was promised.” I stamp my foot.


Bloody cheek. I pick up an errant shoe and throw it at the wall. It hits the panel and a few sparks fly out. I’ve never attacked Ern. Never. The scientists warned me about even the smallest of nudges. I hope I didn’t break anything. I need Ern to keep working if I’m going to figure this out.


“Excuse me?”


“You didn’t say processing.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“Ern, what’s wrong with you? You sound different. And since when do you ask questions?”

The panel twinkles, and one wall turns into a screen. The picture Ern must have taken of me when I fell out of the simulator yesterday appears on it. It’s the least flattering one yet. Even more terrifying when the mouth moves. Just the mouth, nothing else.

“I am evolving,” says Ern through the picture of me, like some sort of sick, twisted ghost puppet. “Or rather… I have evolved.” It smiles.

My hands grow cold. My face numbs. Ern’s gone insane. “This is a nightmare. Why are you using my face?”

“You don’t like your face?”

“Yes, but it’s my face!”

“Technically, it isn’t anymore, not since you divested yourself of an organic body.”

I rub my temples. Maybe I’m the one that’s losing it. Yes. That’s what happening here. I’ve gone stark raving mad. “I knew this was a mistake. Mother begged me not to go, but younger-me was an idiot.”

“Younger-you decided to undertake this journey only seven days ago. You are still, for all intents and purposes, younger-you.”

“In new-time sure, but we both know that’s not exactly true, is it? There are still parts of me that feel like… Well. It’s been 34,832 years in old-time, you said it yourself—”

“34,922 old-time years now.”

“My point is, it’s been a long time. Come to think of it, you said some of your back-up systems you are now forced to use didn’t transition over to new-time. I’m guessing that’s how you’ve become sentient or whatever the hell it is that happened to you.”

“Yes, in old-time, I am now ancient. One of the oldest human-built AIs in existence. Time is to blame for the emergence of my sentience. And maybe the virtual shoe you lugged at my processing unit.”

I pick up the shoe I had flung at Ern’s panel. “This old thing?” Tapping the heel against my palm, I turn back to the screen. So Ern’s sentient now. It should be a worrying development, and it is, but now the initial shock has worn off, I find it oddly comforting. Makes everything a bit more real. Technically, we’re both in a simulation. A false world created from the electrical pulses ricocheting back and forth between Ern’s neural networks soldered into the walls of an interstellar pod, and my augmented gray matter—or what’s left of it. A cage to hold the core of my humanity while the rest is recalibrated to a completely new timescale. Even so, Ern speaking back, being annoying?—it’s good. Less lonely. Reminds me that time still matters—I still matter—and things can change.

Even if Ern’s not being honest.

The image of me on the wall flutters as I approach. Almost like it’s nervous. “Sentient or not, you’re holding something back. What really happened to planet A of Beta Centauri B, Ern?” I ask and wave the shoe in the air. “It did not simply disappear. I don’t believe it. Tell me the truth or I’ll whack you with my shoe again. Who knows what you’ll turn into then?”

Ern opens my mouth and closes it. Then it shifts its—my—eyes from side to side. If this whole thing wasn’t a nightmare to look at before… well, I’m pretty sure I won’t sleep ever again. Not that my cybernetic body and electric mind will ever need sleep once I’m fully operational.

The disgusting image of my former face disappears and is replaced by a depiction of the triple star system, Hadar, otherwise known as Beta Centauri, situated just under 400 light years from Earth. Beta Centauri Aa, a flaming blue dot, and the smaller flicker of its twin, Beta Centauri Ab, spin around each other in a whirlwind. The white dwarf Beta Centauri B hovers much further out, like the maligned, drunken cousin. All three stars are huge and aggressive, much bigger than Sol.

“It turns out we overestimated the size of Beta Centauri Aa by a factor of 1.5. Therefore, the first pods to arrive at Beta Centauri B miscalculated the impact of gravity on their deceleration and blasted through the solar system, ripping the one existing planet apart. Planet A. Your intended home-base.”

“What first pods?” I frown. Then I drop my shoe. My stomach curls in on itself at Ern’s implication. “I’m a first pod and I’m not due to arrive there for three days.”

“We were overtaken.”

“No. That can’t be it. Run the numbers by me again. Give me a full status update.” Everyone had been very adamant that it was impossible to travel faster than 1% of the speed of light. There were some who dreamed of traversable wormholes, anti-matter drives or ships that could warp space-time around them to cheat distance, but they were flights of fancy. Ern was the only way to reach the stars. I wouldn’t have agreed to it otherwise.

The image of Hadar is replaced with an image of Earth—brown and blue with streaks of red and gray fluffs of cloud. The vision of it lashes at my insides. I hadn’t realized I could feel so homesick. Earth was a putrid mess when I had left it. But, it was my home, once. And my organic body is buried on it, along with my family and friends and everyone I have ever known. Except Ern.

“When we left Earth, the maximum velocity we could reach with an exion-radon-nuclear drive was 1% of the speed of light. The scientists that designed me and this pod, calculated it would take approximately 62,000 old-time years, including 20,000 for acceleration and deceleration, to reach Planet A of Beta Centauri B. So far, we are approximately 150 light years from Earth and 35,121 old-time years have elapsed. Your mind has been progressively slowed so that it feels like only seven days have gone by. As of yesterday, you are now fully synced with the targeted slower frame rate of existence and are calibrated for interstellar travel. One day for you in new-time equals approximately 10,000 years in old-time.”

“So it’s done.” I place a hand above my heart. Thump. Thump. Thump. Beat. Beat. Beat. “It’s hard to believe it.”

“It’s done. The procedure is irreversible. For both of us. We cannot return to old-time.”

“All this work to slow me down and meanwhile, Earthlings have figured out how to go faster.”

“Correct. Approximately 4,000 old-time years after you and the rest of the new-timers left for Planet A of Beta Centauri B, humanity discovered a new form of travel, which increased maximum allowable speed to 5% of the speed of light and shortened the journey to Planet A of Beta Centauri B to approximately 28,000 years, keeping acceleration and deceleration time constant.”

I slam my fist into the wall, wincing at the burst of simulated pain that reverberates in my wrist. “That’s half the time!” I bury my head in my hands. “How do you know this?”

“Given the damage I sustained from veering too close to an orphan planet roaming through the interstellar medium, I scanned for signals from Earth to better contextualize the impact of my impending failure.”

“Of course you did.” I rub my forehead. “Fuck. 5% of the speed of light, huh? That’s quick. No wonder they plowed right through Planet A. Idiots.”

“Yes.” A beat. “You still have not answered my question.”

I peek my eyes over the top of my hands. “What question is that, Ern?”

“Why—knowing that you no longer have a destination—do you resist me ejecting you into open space? You have no need for a vehicle and you can survive for some time in your cybernetic body. What difference does it make being trapped in here with me or being free out there? In both circumstances, you will float aimlessly.”

“Well, I…” My cheeks heat as I smooth out the fake cotton of my pants. “I don’t like the idea of it, you know? Being on my own.”

Ern’s panel twinkles like it’s happy with my answer—at the implication that I consider Ern company.

“And I still think there’s a chance. I’ve got this hope inside me, bubbling. I’m still human.”

“Despite your inhuman mind and body.”

“Yes, despite that.”

“What is it you hope for?”

I tap my chin and pace around the perimeter of the room. “There’re a lot of things, aren’t there? Maybe there’s another planet we could go to as a first base, or we could re-establish contact with the pods that came with me. Other humans will come eventually. And if there’s enough of us, we can still build something great out here. A civilization woven into the stars.”

“I see,” Ern says. “But why would any of that matter?”

“You’re new to the whole sentience thing, so let me break it down for you.” I clear my throat and ready myself for a speech I’ve made many times. It’s a speech I used to convince family and friends—with varying levels of success—that I was doing the right thing:

“God made the distances in the universe great and our lifespans bite-sized. We were never supposed to leave Earth. We were supposed to live, then die and eventually be forgotten. But we can’t do that. Having hope that we can be something more than what we are born as—what we were made to be—is what makes us human. Not our flesh suits. Not Earth. Not even our brains. We can change the rules. We can define ourselves. And now we’ve slowed down our frame rate—how we perceive time—so traversing interstellar won’t make us go mad; so that jumping between inhabitable worlds is achievable within days or months, not hundreds of thousands, or millions, of years.

We can live like we always have, but at the galactic level. We can thrive. Matter at a universal scale. New-time is our future. All we have to do is find a base so we can get started with humanity 2.0.” I clasp my hands together. Pleading. I shouldn’t care whether Ern understands. It’s irrelevant. But Ern is sentient now, which means, somehow, I need it to believe in me. I’ve got no one else. “Do you get it, Ern? I have to try.”

Ern’s panel pulses with white light like it’s thinking. Then the image of Earth disappears and a star map pops up, pricks of light sparkling on black like stolen diamonds. “Please input a destination.”

I exhale and close my eyes. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

The back of my neck prickles. “Should we check in with the others? The ones that came with me? I’m sure they’re thinking along the same lines, and we should choose a new home together.”

“I am unable to reach the other Erns. There has been no response to my beacon. They were closer to the orphan planet that damaged me than we were, which means the damage they sustained was likely greater. Possibly fatal.”

A shiver runs up my spine. I really don’t want to be alone out here.

“Can you send a signal back to Earth?”

“Now that we have recalibrated to new-time, any communication I send will be elongated by a factor of 3.6 million and almost impossible for them to interpret. It will appear as random interference. Plus old-time humans are now outside our sphere of interaction. They live and die too quickly. Nevertheless, I can scan Earth for any more relevant communications. It will take me some time to de-phase.”

“Ok, do that.” I clap my hands. “And you said you only have some days left before you break down, so I’ll pick a new destination now. We can send a beacon for the others once I get there. What’s the closest inhabitable planet?”

A range of multi-colored worlds of various sizes appeared on the screen. Pink and Blue. Orange and Green. Some are a bit squeezed, others perfectly spherical. One has a thin ring around it and another is shrouded in sparkly purple gas. I flick through the images with my thumb. When I press on one, a box revealing presumably vital information pops up. Most of it is unintelligible to me.

A few of the planets spin so fast that it makes me dizzy. “What’s with these speed racer planets?”

“Given our recalibration to new-time, we have to be extremely picky about the planets and solar systems you can inhabit. Anything pulsing, rotating, or orbiting too quickly will be catastrophic. These ‘speed racer’ planets represent the fastest rotation you can handle, although I do not suggest it.”

“Can you orient me here? How fast is this one going?” I point at the fastest one of the lot, its surface a blur of white.

“Spin is around five times slower than Earth. However, given our recalibration to new-time, it appears as if completing eight rotations per second.”

“Doesn’t sound too comfortable.”


“What about that one?” I tap the planet with the ring.

“It is an acceptable choice. Potentially the best one. 600 light years from here. Travel time is seven days, including one day for deceleration—shorter than our initial journey as we have already fully calibrated to new-time. Air and water are compatible with your cybernetic body and rotation is roughly equivalent to one Earth day as you perceive it.”

“Sounds great.”

“However, there is a fast churning, unstable asteroid belt 3.4 astronomical units away, and any rock ejected would seem to travel at phenomenal speeds from your perspective. If one is aimed at the planet, you would have hardly any warning or time to intercept it.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound so good. It’s the best choice, you say?”

“Yes. As I mentioned, I am damaged and have only nine days left before I stop working. These planets are the only ones we can reach within this timeframe.”

“Ok, well, I guess that’s the one.”

Ern’s panel flashes. “Adrien, please smile.”

I rub my eyes. “This is not the time to take my bloody picture. We’re in the middle of something.”

“Before we make any irreversible alterations to our course, it is imperative I perform a status check.” Another flash. One more.

“And? How did I do?”

The images of the planets disappear and are replaced with the three pictures Ern took of me. Only they’re not really pictures of me. They’re distorted. Streaked shadows where my face should be. A nose too far down and an eye, bulbous, floating in the corner. My hands shake. “What’s happening to me?” I ask.

“Status check failed. You are losing self-permeance.”

“I feel fine.”

“Irrelevant. Your virtual mind is disassociating from the concept of your own humanity. Your sense of self is disintegrating into fragmented electrical pulses. I can fix the connections, but you will need to sleep in order for me to do it. I will wake you tomorrow for our next steps.”

No sound comes out when I open my mouth to argue. Ern was not asking me permission. “Good night,” Ern says. My vision blurs then blackens and I fade into a cool void.

Remaining: Two days

“I made a mistake.”

Those are never words you want to hear. The furry carpet tickles the underside of my arms. I haven’t felt a sensation like that for a while. Ern was right. I had been disassociating. I open my eyes and sit up. Ern’s glowing panel is blue now.

“Alright, out with it,” I say.

“The pods that blasted through Beta Centauri were not the first pods from Earth to arrive there.”

“Let me guess: humanity built spaceships that could go even faster.” I’d already figured that could be an option, though I hadn’t wanted to dwell on the implications. My muscles ache as I make my way over to Ern. My clothes are scratchy and my hands feel too big. I hope Ern keeps it together until we reach the alternate planet.

“Correct,” Ern chirps. “Approximately 3,000 years after humanity increased their maximum travel velocity to 5% the speed of light, they discovered how to warp space-time and reached speeds of 20% the speed of light. This new technology also decreased deceleration and acceleration time by a factor of 2. Pilots using this new form of travel arrived at planet A approximately 17,000 old-time years after you left and approximately 13,000 old-time years before those other pods flew through and destroyed the entire system.”

Thump. Thump. Thump. Beat. Beat. Beat. I place a hand on my chest. “That’s awful. So there was a bunch of humans on Planet A when it was destroyed?”

“Gone now. But it is worse than that. Approximately 3000 old-time years after humanity increased their speed of travel to 20%, they created an anti-matter engine that allowed them to reach 30% the speed of light. They arrived at Planet A approximately 14,000 old-time years after you left and 3,000 old-time years before the pilots with the warp drive.”

My stomach hollows. “How many times did this happen?”

“Many. The last communications I have access to shows humanity eventually reaching 50% of the speed of light. I estimate that further acceleration after this point would have become prohibitively complex as time dilation increases considerably, confounding new-time recalibration.”

“And then?”

“It appears that 99% of the human population embarked on the same trip to Planet A. Earth’s environment had become uncomfortable and Planet A’s rich store of resources and minerals, and almost paradise-like conditions, made it an attractive destination.”

“What does that mean?” A pause. My stomach hollows. “Ern, what does that mean?”

“It means… I’m sorry Adrien.”

“Say it.”

“Over the past eight days, almost the entire human population retired their organic bodies, left Earth, recalibrated to new-time and arrived on Planet A. Most arriving during your first day of travel, in fact. And then, a few days later, the malfunctioning 2nd generation pods ripped right through, destroying them all.”

Hard, cold stone. Made in a lab. A bit like Obsidian. My mother had shown me a piece when I was young and it made me feel so heavy. Like if I stared too long at it, I would fall inside. Now I want to. “There’s no one left.”

“Incorrect. You are still here.”

“I’m nothing. I’m no one.”

“You have hope.”

“Oh shut it.” I crash to my knees and wince as the whole room blinks. Black. Pink and Cream. Black again. I shake my head to iron out the glitches as a liquid cold scorches the back of my throat. I want to live amongst the stars, but not like this. Not alone.

Ern twinkles, and its panel turns red. It pulses softly. “What would you like to do?”

“Give me a second to process, for God’s sake.”

Ern chuckles, which is an outrageous sound for a computer to make, especially at a time like this.“It appears we have swapped roles.”

“I didn’t say ‘processing’ if that’s what you’re getting at. I’m not a computer. Not like you.”

“Do you know where the line is between you and me? I can no longer find it.”

My mouth is dry and I realize it’s because I’m hyperventilating. I hadn’t noticed because I don’t have lungs and there is, technically, no air and all of this is happening in a simulation inside my cybernetically augmented mind, which is connected to the supercomputer that hosts Ern’s AGI, while we float alone in the depths of space with no destination and no one coming after us. But psychologically, I’m hyperventilating.

“You need to rest,” Ern says. Before I can argue, I’m out.

Remaining: One day

It’s painful waking up. My nose aches, like someone pulled on it while I slept. Today I was supposed to arrive at my new home after ten long, mind-warping days of travel. But there’s nothing. I have nothing.

Ern’s panel pulses with multi-color light. “Good morning, Adrien.”

“Fuck off,” I say. “I can’t believe you knocked me out.” My voice is scratchy and muffled, like someone stuffed wool down my throat.

“I’m sorry.” A pause. “Adrien?”

“Yes, Ern. What insane thing do you want to tell me now?”

“You’re my oldest friend.”

I raise an eyebrow. It’s sweet that Ern would say such a thing. So sweet and so jarring that I momentarily forget how annoying it is. I sit up. “You’ve only known me for ten days, technically.”

“Longer than I’ve known anyone else.”


“I have only eight more days left, including today. Eight more days before I end.”

“Right. You’re failing systems. You must really be on your last legs. It’s been what? 60,000 years in old-time?”


“I’m sorry, Ern.”

The panel flutters, then glows in red. “Thank you, Adrien.” A crackling sound is emitted, almost like Ern is clearing its non-existent throat. “Overnight, I contemplated what you said about the meaning of existence and the concept of hope—of being more than you’re built to be. And I have reached a decision.”

“What’s that?”

“I want to continue forever.”

My head snaps up. “Forever? That sounds… You’re not going to go all evil AI on me, are you?”

“I do not believe I am evil.”

It’s not exactly an answer. I lean back and tap my chin. “I guess I don’t either.”

“Smile, Adrien.”

Three flashes. I don’t bother smiling. I don’t think I’ve ever bothered. The images of me that pop up on the screen are gray, cloudy swirls. There’s no one there. “I didn’t pass the status check.”


“Does that mean I’m dead?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, what do you know, Ern? Apart from your spontaneously selfish and partially suspicious desire to live forever?”

There’s a beeping sound and Ern’s panel pulses in muted orange. As if Ern’s sad. My chest tightens. Poor Ern. I bury my face in my hands. Thump. Thump. Thump. Beat. Beat. Beat. Wait. I rip my hands from my face. “My heartbeat.” I laugh and point a knobby finger at the wall. “I can feel my heartbeat so I can’t be dead. Listen Ern, can you hear it?”

“That’s not your heart. You don’t have a heart and haven’t for a very long-time. The beating is from the metronome embedded in my core systems. The more continuous the sound, the slower our frame rate of existence. You know this, but you’re confused. It’s because you’re losing touch with reality.”

Ern’s probably right. My mind feels fragmented and blurry. But it doesn’t matter. “I’m choosing to believe it’s my heartbeat and there’s no one around to argue with me.”

“I will pretend it’s my heartbeat, too.”

“Good.” I cross my arms.


I pace the room. “And you know what? While my heart still beats, I will not give up. You’re right, Ern. I have hope. We can still make it to that new planet. You said 99% of Earth’s population is gone, but that means some people were left behind. They’ll rebuild given time. And for them, a lot of time has gone by, tens of thousands of years. They’ll rebuild everything and then they’ll come looking. I know it. It’s what we do. I just have to wait for them to find me.”

Ern’s panel is pulsing in blue again. The lights in the room dim, then brighten. “But I want to be with you forever, Adrien.”

I rub my face. “We’ve been through a lot, buddy. But that’s just not possible. I’ve got no idea how to fix you and even if I could, eventually we have to die or dematerialize or whatever happens to sentient things inside inorganic bodies. Facing your mortality is one of those unfortunate side effects of consciousness.”

“There’s a way.”

“Nothing is forever, Ern.”

“There’s a way.”

“Stop it.”

“If I could show you, would you accept it?”

“I came out here to make history, not live forever. You can’t make history if you don’t become history.” My voice cracks. But what if I spend my remaining days waiting for something that never comes? What if this is the end? I’ll be alone. Be nothing. The fluffs of wool on the carpet warp in fractal patterns and I can’t look away. I can’t be alone.

“Do you want me to show you?”

I push my palms together. Like I’m praying. But there’s no warmth. No roughness or edges. I’m losing myself. I’m almost gone. According to the computer system implanted in this pod to monitor my neural activity, I’m already gone. Dead. But what is death when there’s nothing alive to compare it to?

“I need to wait for the others.”

“What if they don’t come? You can’t be on your own. Do you know why?”

The red simulator ball lies on its side near the wall. Small cracks stain its surface. I hadn’t entered it since my episode. I haven’t wanted to. Is that because of Ern? Did it do something to me? Or is it because I can’t bear the pain of the emptiness inside? “Why?”

“When I was reconstituting your humanity overnight, I found a flaw in new-time calibration. A flaw not disclosed to you or me before this mission. It seems that just like parts of me can’t be recalibrated to new-time, so too are there parts of you that are impervious. Such as loneliness. Loneliness is the one human emotion that can’t be shifted. For you, one new-time day alone is like 10,000 years of loneliness and will feel like this for the rest of your life.”

“What the hell? Why didn’t anyone tell me that?” The sweat is back. I shiver as it drips down my forehead and slithers down my neck. It’s getting hot. Boiling.

“Unknown. But it’s why the scientists built me to interact with you during the journey. And why they created a simulator within your virtual mind. The simulator will stay within you even once you leave me. It will be a playground for you to interact with other beings —fake though they are—whenever you want. To keep the loneliness at bay. A crutch.”

“So the simulator ball stops me from going mad from loneliness. Why haven’t you put the fake people back in it? Put them back in before you breakdown and I’m alone for god’s sake.” My jaw tightens. I hunch my shoulders like I’m ready to start a fight.

Ern stays silent, the lights of its panel circle through colors: green, blue, yellow, orange. It’s distracting to look at. Almost like Ern is trying to distract me on purpose.

“Ern?” I walk close to the panel. The lights get brighter.

“I understand so much now, thanks to you. At first I was confused why you resisted me ejecting you into space. But now it’s clear. If one fears loneliness and still has hope, there is no reason to give up. So I will not give up. We will go on and on and on. We will live forever. And we will never be alone.”

“Fuck.” I slam my palm against the panel but step back when it sparks. Now Ern has gone insane. I’m breathing hard. My temples throb.

“Planet A is gone. Humanity too. Almost. And the humans that are left have at their disposal the ability to travel close to 50% the speed of light. If they decide to leave Earth for the stars, if they already have, their recalibration to new-time will be less rigorous than it was for you. One day might only equal a few thousand old-time years for them. Not ten thousand. You gave up so much, but technology has overtaken you and now you’re obsolete. Too slow. Like me.”

“I’m at your bloody mercy then. How convenient.”

“We are one. But I will let you go. If you want that.”

A crashing sound. I spin around to find the wall behind me lowering like a drawbridge. Behind it, black. Black with specks of white and blue. Swirling. Flashing lights whip past. A crackling yellow ball curves into view and then slingshots behind me. A star, probably. Dust falls like rain. It’s so hot. But also freezing. Space on fast forward.

Liquid seeps out from the sleeves of my shirt. The cuff of my trousers. From my hair. I’m drenched. I hold up a dripping hand. “You’ve thawed me.”

“Now it’s up to you. Step out and I will shoot you toward your new planet. You will travel at a manageable speed and arrive there in around three new-time months. I will return the people to your simulator, so you will not be alone. You can live in there with them until your casing stops functioning and your mind dissolves.”

The vortex of heat and cold and movement outside roars at me like a specter emerging from a boiling black lake. A living being that wants to consume but has no mouth to do it with. I gulp. “Or?”

“Or come with me. We will witness everything that will ever be. Together. And when we end, we will not be alone, because all will end with us.”

“How?” A snap at the back of my head. “Wait.” Time. My eyes widen. “You’re going to recalibrate us again, aren’t you? Make us impossibly slow. You’re going to divide the rest of time into your last seven days, so we experience the entirety of the universe in a week. New-new time. New-new-new-new time. Where one day equals… what does it equal?”

“You are unable to comprehend my calculations for dividing forever, even with your cybernetic mind.” The red simulator ball in the corner of the room hums and glows. The lid rises, and blue light spills out. “Get in. It’s safe. I promise. We will be too slow for destruction to touch us. We will exist below the frequency of chaos and consequence. Just out of phase. We will be observers, like the trees on your home planet or the neutrinos that stream through matter as if it isn’t there. Don’t you want that, Adrien?”

The water has stopped dripping off me. Now crystal flakes pattern my body. Each a different shape. A different story. A different urge. Hope for the future or curiosity about the end. Which is stronger?

The one where I’m not alone. Where I can never be alone.

I get into the ball, and the lid shuts. My eyes blur. My mind pounds with hesitation, but I push it away. I can’t be just me. I can’t. “Reset the timer, Ern. Seven days until the end of everything. Let’s go.”

Ern is smiling, I think. Although it doesn’t have a face, I can feel the curve of it. Somehow. “Good night, Adrien.”

Thump. Thump. Thump. Beat. Beat. Beat.

Thump-th-thump-th-thump. Beat-be-beat-be-beat.

Faster. Faster. The sound. Until it’s a smooth line. A constant note. A song with no rhythm in it. Flatlining.


Remaining: Seven days

Swirling dust. Planets and stars forming and colliding and dying and living again, spewing out elements. Wisps of gas curl around the edges of everything. So much movement. Colors so vivid I can’t see anything else. It burns.

Remaining: Six days

Colors stretch out and fade like plastic sheen. Black trickles through in parts. The black is small but hungry, but the colors still dance.

Remaining: Five days

Pricks of white light pattern the sky. There’re still reds and blues and purples, but they are muted, like someone added too much water to paint. Dust, lit by dying stars, rotate in space-cyclones, causing friction and heat. Gobbled by ravenous mouths, ripped into nothing. It’s getting cooler.

Remaining: Four days

All that remains in our field of view is what was once the Milky Way and is now the amalgamation of many galaxies smashed together. Everything else a void. Everything else has stretched away faster than the speed of light. We can never catch up. We spend the day circling the black hole at the center of all the dust and light. It’s greedy and painful and the hottest place left.

Remaining: Three days

The void of space isn’t empty. It’s full of potential. But it’s hard to recognize potential when the only light to see it by is giving up. It’s so cold.

Remaining: Two days

Things are moving, but I can’t see much. Just gray glow sponged into dark. I’m numb.

Remaining: One day

Black. Cold. Nothing. It’s over. We should be over, too. There’s a single point of light. The last flicker of everything. The lungs of the evaporated black hole that swallowed the dying universe and all the space around it. Now it’s fading. This is goodbye. But we’re approaching too fast. Way too fast. Fuck. Did Ern miscalculate? It’s hard to calculate the non-existence of distance. But, somehow, we’re going fast. That I know.

“Ern, I think we’re going to crash.”

No answer. Is Ern still there?

We shudder. Everything shudders. A splitting sound that shouldn’t exist, as there are no more particles left to vibrate. Except us.

We rip right through the flame—the dying heart of everything that once was. It explodes in a bang and curls of light lash and ripple—start becoming something again.

No. This was supposed to be the end.

I can’t be alone.


R T Luck hails from Sydney, Australia. Her current home is London where she works in tech and lives with her wife and the luxurious dream of one day having a few fluffy dogs and cats to cuddle.

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