Here, dear readers, is a bit of science fiction. Yes, it's brand new and--like most of my fiction, I have idea where it came from. Which is probably just as well. Please enjoy.
by Paul W. Marino
The Vistalia Rima sailed through deep space in utter silence. Its massive engines had shut down five centuries before, when they had brought the ship to 90% the speed of light. They would not be reactivated for another four centuries, when it was time to begin slowing the ship down. In the meantime, it was like any other bit of space flotsam, a miniscule scrap of metal speeding along on a course set long ago.
Utterly silent, the Vistalia Rima was likewise lifeless. A half a dozen mechanoids roamed its empty passageways, overseeing its automated systems, double checking its navigational programming and tending to the passengers and crew, fast asleep in the stasis tubes.
To the mechanoids that viewed them, the human cargo were only machines whose vital signs had to be observed and kept to certain specifications. Stasis had to be maintained, oxygen levels calibrated and brain activity measured. Not that there was much brain activity; in stasis, normal signs of life were absent. But when the brain was stimulated in stasis, it reacted in a certain way that registered as a sign of health or in another that indicated a potential failure of the body in stasis.
It was rare, but it happened at times. A particular body might mis-react to the long term effects of the stasis chamber. In that event, the person was taken out of stasis, along with another whose identification code indicated that he or she was a medical engineer. That engineer would conduct an examination of the faulty cargo. When he had done all he could to stabilize the patient, the patient would go back into stasis. And after a few months of performing precision scans, the engineer would himself go back into stasis.
As it happened, nothing of this kind took place on this trip. Instead, the mechanoids ran their endless scans, logged in their data and in due time, activated the engines to begin slowing the Rima down. Now tremors ran up and down the length of the ship, like earthquakes. The mechanoids paid them no heed, save only to note that they occurred as scheduled.
As the vessel gradually decelerated, it flew into a solar system. It flashed past planets; irregularly shaped blobs of ice and gas giants that made Jupiter look puny, aiming for a distant speck of light that was the system’s sun. The interior of the ship began to grow warmer, partly because the distant sun was starting to heat it and partly because the mechanoids were activating the ship’s life support systems.
Nine hundred years and seven months after leaving the Rima’s point of departure, the crew were released from stasis. Massaged and overseen by medical mechanoids, they were fed, examined and eventually released to tend to their duties. They turned off the autopilot and set to the task of guiding the ship into a tight orbit around the sun, a blue giant. Its gravity well would slow the ship down to a cruising speed and its atmosphere restore the ship’s depleted power cells. Then they would whip out into space again, making for the fifth planet, where a colony waited for supplies and personnel.
It was not until they had the sun at their backs that the incident was discovered.
“Captain, we’re missing Storage Pod X9746.” The Captain looked at him, her green eyes hard.
“What do you mean missing?” The Chief Engineer shook his head.
“It’s no longer attached. It was in place when we departed and when we went into stasis. I have people going through the records now, but at some point during the flight it became detached.”
“Perhaps, Ma-am, but it’s not attached to the Rima now.”
“I assume you’ve checked on it?”
“Of course, I have. As soon as I saw the blank space on the console, I started six crewmen to look in the records. I took a sled to midships. The hatch is sealed and the viewport shows nothing but empty space outside. It was either jettisoned or knocked off by a meteor, though the hatch shows no sign of damage. I’m guessing it was jettisoned in transit, though I have a mechanoid en route to the pod’s connection point.”
“I want a full report on my desk in ten minutes.”
It was an hour before the records kept by the mechanoids gleaned results.
“You’re not going to like this, Ma-am. I know I don’t.”
“Gharis, there’s a huge difference between you not liking it and me not liking it.”
“I understand that, Ma-am, but the fact remains that the records are incomplete, in several ways. First, the visual I have from the mechanoid I sent out indicates that Pod X9746 was ejected; not knocked off, but ejected. There is no damage to the coupling at all.
“Further, there is a gap in the records; two of them, in fact.”
“The in-flight records?”
“Yes Ma-am. As you know, every mechanoid is programmed to keep a log of everything it does over the course of the day. Everywhere it goes, every procedure it follows, everything it encounters, every flaw it finds, every technical glitch. The log is kept in twenty minute blocks of time. The ejection of Pod X9746 is not listed in any of the records, indicating that none of the mechanoids witnessed or participated in it.”
“You’re damn right, Gharis. I don’t like this.”
“Not yet, you don’t, Ma-am. We appear to have a replacement mechanoid on board. Why it was built is not in the records; neither is there an explanation for why it was built without a work order. As near as we can determine without questioning the mechanoids--and I have two men working on that--SM-52790043 disappeared mid-flight; we were approximately five hundred years out of port when when it vanished and a replacement unit, also numbered SM-52790043 was built and took over its duties.”
“Why wasn’t it given a new number?”
“We don’t know, Ma-am. There’s nothing in the records to explain it. We’ll have to question each mechanoid separately, though considering how little capacity they have for memory, I doubt we’ll get any useful data out of them.
“All the records indicate is that 52790043-one was en route to perform an equipment check in sector 898AA6B at 1500 hours departure time. At 1545 hours, work was begun on 52790043-two; it was put to work at 1643. But there was no work order. None of the other mechanoids reported the absence of nor a search for 52790043-one. They just built the replacement and carried on as if nothing had happened.”
“I definitely don’t like this.”
“Neither do I, Ma-am.”
“But it’s not your ship. It’s my ship, and I hate when things like this happen on my ship.”
“I understand, Ma-am. My investigation is still going on, but I’m beginning to think this was organized back at the beginning of the voyage.”
“As you know, Ma-am, everything that happens on a deep space vessel in mid-flight happens according to strict protocols. The mechanoids do their rounds, perform their tasks, conduct their tests and file reports based on every twenty minute block of time. If one of them disappears and isn’t reported missing, isn’t searched for or an attempt not made to contact it.......it’s not possible. Their protocols are preset at the factory. They can’t ignore their protocols anymore than you can hold your breath for an hour at a time.
“But further, it’s equally impossible for them to calmly build a replacement unit, assign it the same number as the missing one and go back to work as if nothing has happened.”
“Unless a program was written to override their protocols.”
“We’re making port in another three months. You make this investigation your top priority. When we get to port, I want to know everything--how the mechanoids were programmed, how this was slipped past us--everything.”
When the Vistalia Rima made port, it did not actually land on the planet. Five miles in length, it was far too unwieldy to be stable within an atmosphere. Instead, a parade of shuttles climbed up from the surface and connected to interlocks built into the hull. Storage pods were emptied and the cargo loaded into the shuttles, which then disengaged and began the long flight home. Stasis tubes were opened and the passengers handed over to the medical personnel before being shown into shuttles that would bear them to their new home, a thousand light years from their planet of birth.
One passenger was not directed to a shuttle once he was released from sickbay. Instead, a junior officer led him to the Captain’s office, a generous room with a wide viewport that revealed a breathtaking vista of the planet below.
“So we’re really here!” The man said, smiling.
“Yes, we are. Mr. Shurtiff, I’m Captain Bloun. This is my Chief Engineer, Brad Gharis.” The man named Shurtiff heartily shook hands all around.
“I’m pleased to meet you! Does every passenger get this treat?”
“No sir. If you’d please take a seat, we have a matter of importance to discuss.”
The passenger name Shurtiff looked at the table and chose a seat from which he could see the planet turning below them.
“Isn’t it beautiful!” He gasped.
“Yes, it is, sir. This is a world largely composed of islands in a vast sea of fresh water. If you like boats, you’ll be very happy here. But if I may get straight to the point....” She sighed uncomfortably. “We suffered a.......mishap in flight. The pod containing the greater part of your belongings appears to have been jettisoned.” Shurtiff gaped at her.
“Jettisoned? Why? How?” The Captain’s already grim mouth set itself a bit tighter.
“We don’t know. All that we do know is that roughly five hundred years ago--midway through our flight--the pod was ejected, possibly with one of our maintenance mechanoids on board.” The man’s tongue wagged helplessly.
“No one saw? No one heard?”
“No sir. Every human being on board was in stasis. Mr. Gharis has been going through the mechanoids’ logs, and there is no record of the pod being jettisoned, by neither accident nor design. As much as I dislike having to say this, it appears to be a freak accident. The question now is, what can we do to make this right?”
Shurtiff clapped both hands to his head and lowered his elbows to the table.
“My God!” He moaned. “Everything! All my work.......all of it just....gone!”
“I realize this doesn’t even begin to do justice to what you’re feeling, but I am very sorry. I am willing to do everything I need to do to make this right for you.” Shurtiff looked up, his gaze going past her and on to the planet.
“I’m a horticulturist, Captain. I was coming here to do research, to find what plants from Earth might flourish here, that might grow food under new conditions and make the colony self-sustaining. Believe me, there is nothing you can do to replace what I have lost. Even if you went back to Earth and returned with everything I had in that pod, I would have been dead for two thousand years.
“No. We will chalk this up to an accident of space travel; it was a plan never meant to be brought to fruition.” He stared down at the blue seas under the drifting clouds and smiled. “I also meant for this to be a fresh start. That is what it will be.”
“Are you sure, sir?” Gharis asked. “You had some expensive articles in that pod; two stasis tubes--.......”
“Trees. Seeds. Seedlings. Things that needed to be kept alive. Indeed, I expect they are still alive.......somewhere.” He gave a quiet chuckle. “No. I will chalk it up to space travel and resolve to never indulge in such a mode of transportation again. And I shall begin anew on this beautiful new world.” He gestured toward the viewport and smiled; it was a smile of warmth, pleasure and peace.
He shook hands with the Captain and the Chief Engineer again, refused again any recompense for his lost cargo and left the room, seeking only the way to his shuttle.
“What an odd duck!” Gharis sighed.
“I wouldn’t mind a full slate of ducks like him on board.” The Captain tapped her intercom. “Slater, there’s a passenger departing......Harold Shurtiff. I want you to go with him and refund his entire passage, in local currency.”
“There’s something about him,” Gharis muttered. The Captain looked at him.
“There’s something about everyone you don’t like, isn’t there?"
“No, Ma-am. It’s him. As he walked off down the passage, I could swear I heard him laughing!” The Captain sighed.
“I don’t really care, Gharis. What I care about is how this incident happened and how to keep it from happening again. What else have you found out about it?”
“Just one thing, Ma-am. I had the computer start a search of the records. It can work faster than we can and more carefully besides. What it turned up is an......anomaly.”
“Some set of instructions was entered into the protocols shortly after we left port.”
“No way of telling. Once the instructions were carried out, they were erased, recorded over, erased again, recorded over again and deleted. Not even the computer can tell us more.”
The Captain banged her fist on the table.
“Never again. Do you hear me, mister? Never! You write a program today: Nothing gets fed into that computer without a high security code known only to you, me and Mr. Franklin.”
“Yes Ma-am. It will in place by tonight.”
When Pod X9746 was jettisoned, it tumbled off into space at near light speed. It continued tumbling for nearly a thousand years until it was caught by the gravitational current of a red giant star. The star drew it into an orbit and, over the course of several centuries, slowed it down to a cruising velocity of two or three thousand kilometers per minute. Initially, its orbit was wide; it drew in close, within several million kilometers, then flung itself out again, sailing in a long oval until it drew near the sun again.
It did this for several more centuries until a shift in the gravitational currents sent it closer to the star, where it fell into a tighter orbit; an orbit that would, in time, decay, allowing the pod to fall into the star, where it would be flash incinerated.
Once it became locked into the tight orbit, sensors in one of the packing crates piled inside the pod sent a signal to SM-52790043, activating it. The mechanoid had been conserving its batteries far, far longer than it had ever had to before, and it knew it did not have long to perform its final function before the batteries ran down completely. It had long ago positioned itself between the stasis tubes and now typed in the codes to open them.
Having completely different power systems, they activated quickly and began the process of ending stasis. When they opened, SM-52790043 waited patiently. It was almost out of power, but there was just enough. Even if SM-52790043 had been capable of surprise, it would not have been so to observe that the tubes did not contain plant species. In fact, one contained a human male; the other contained a human female.
Under normal circumstances, they would have been moved to a medical facility, where their muscles would be massaged and they’d be fed liquid nutrition, thus speeding up the recovery time. SM-52790043, however, did not have the power to bring them to a medical facility—even if there was one to bring them to; neither did it have the programming to perform those functions itself, so the two humans woke slowly and painfully.
When SM-52790043 was aware they were both awake and aware of themselves, it accessed its memory and performed its final task, playing back a single recording. It had been committed to the mechanoid’s memory two and a half millennia earlier.
“Melanie, my dear; Harold here. I’m sorry you’re waking up under less than ideal circumstances. You know I love you. I always have. Stanley, I don’t love you. What Melanie sees in you, I’ll never know. But you know how you two always wished you could have a world of your own? Well, now you’ve got one. If you look in the packing crates, you’ll find enough synthetic food and water tablets to last you a good fifty years, if you’re careful. Best of luck to the both of you.”