There is a buzzing sound in my head as Herman runs around checking and double checking everything. We still have a few minutes before the Snap. The crew are all tucked away in their cradles. Herman goes through his final motions over and over again.
“Herman,” I call him up.
“Yes, Captain?” Whenever I talk to Herman I get this pleasant little green wash over the far right corner of my video feed. It’s the closest thing I get to company.
“Anything new from Rosenthal this month?”
“No, Captain.” He mutters.
“Tell me a joke then,” I like talking to Herman. I can imagine the way my voice should sound, without having to hear the mechanical compromise.
“Have you memorized our coordinates and post-Snap instructions, Captain?”
“I don’t get it,”
“Captain please,” he whines, the light dimming and swirling around.
“Yes, yes. It’s all taken care of. Now tell me a joke,”
“Pre-Snap is no time for jokes from my perspective, Captain.”
In my experience the closest thing the AI can come to depression is approaching the end of a command sequence.
“Carry on,” I say, and the green light at the right corner of my visual fades away without a word.
Since I’m the only one conscious during a Snap, I suppose I should be keeping a record, but it is… strange to say the least. Unnatural is the best word for it. I’m at a loss for visuals since the whole ship save the Snap drive is powered down. It’s strange for me. After a while of having my mind connected to all the ship’s capabilities I get a feeling of omniscience. It’s strange to have that all gone at once. I’m a paralyzed hunk of human again with nothing but a left ear to rely on. I sit there listening to the raspy sound of my unaided breathing. I listen to the creaks the ship makes. If I listen hard enough I can hear the droning hum of the Snap drive.
Then everything gets pleasant. There’s a falling sensation and all reality drops out from under me. It feels like someone is pulling my head back and my brain stretches out far away from my body, like a rubber band that just won’t snap. I feel a chilly tingle spread across my skin. It’s like being drunk, or at least how I remember being drunk. It stays like this for a while. Slow. Relaxing. I feel like I’m on the verge of falling asleep.
Then things get unpleasant. My rubber band brain snaps back together. My head jolts forward from the force. The pleasant tingling turns into a horrible cold itching. I can’t scratch myself, but I feel like even if I could it wouldn’t make a difference. I start to shake and sweat and I feel like there’s no air in the room. Worse than that. I feel like there’s never been air, and there never will be air, and I’ve just been living in a pleasant dream world filled with air my whole life. I gasp and I choke and I can’t prove anything is real. I’m all alone in a place that never was and I’m fading, flickering like a light going out, and if I forget to think I AM REAL over and over, I will cease to be real.
Then it gets quiet. I can breathe again. The horrible itching is gone. But oh is it quiet. I don’t know how long it lasts. Maybe years. Maybe it never really ends, and this time I won’t come out of it. I’m not worried. If I didn’t make it, it wouldn’t bother me. My thoughts have an echo here, and I can hear my own voice again. The speakers are off, everything is off, but I can hear my own voice. I’m singing. There’s a soft haunting melody and my voice is singing. I can’t sing, I can’t speak, I can’t even cough, but I hear my voice. Through the numb scar tissue of my face I can feel the cool metal surface of the faceplate. But I’m singing, and it’s beautiful, and it’s a shame no one can hear it but me.
The ship emerges on the other side. There’s a moment of confusion. I’m scared because I can’t see or move, but it all comes back to me after a moment of panic.
I have three working fingers on my right hand. That doesn’t sound like much, but it was enough to get me put in charge of a starship. My fingers move slow as I peck at the buttons on the control pad. First I reboot the ship Synapse, and resume all life support functions. It suddenly becomes a lot easier to breath. I feel the ship capabilities connecting with my consciousness. I initialize Herman.
“Good morning, Captain,” Herman chirps. The green glow at the corner of my visual lights up, it’s so bright I’d squint if I could.
“Is it morning?” As though it matters to me.
“Nine hundred standard Captain. Might I query coordinates?” He flickers, can’t seem to keep himself contained now that there’s work to be done.
I poke destination coordinates into the command pad. I had to rack my brain for the last digit.
“Mission statement, Captain?”
“Cargo. Sustenance cargo for Gratia colonial effort. Mission parameters open source.”
“Affirmative, Captain,” he squeaks back at me.
“Hey Herman,” I call him back to my consciousness as soon as he blinks out.
“Yes, Captain?” he answers.
“Tell me a joke,”
“The Past, Present, and Future walk into a bar. It was tense.”
The door to my quarters slides open.
It’s the new caretaker again, visibly less terrified than her last visit.
“We meet again,” I say. The speakers that project my voice try to model it after my memory of my old voice. It comes close, but it makes me sound so formal and cold, with just a dash of polite inquisitiveness, like I’m always asking a question, but never quite get to the point.
“Hello,” she answers this time, though she’s not sure where to direct it.
She approaches my bed and begins her chores.
She keeps her eyes away from the stumps where my legs should be, and gives my scarred hunk of a left arm plenty of space, but other than that she seems to have gotten over it. I think for most people it’s speaking to a metal plate rather than good old-fashioned human face that unnerves them, she doesn’t seem as bothered by that. She smiles a little half smile that I can’t return.
“I’m sorry I didn’t speak to you the last time. I- well they didn’t tell me you could speak and- it’s weird-“
“Talking to a corpse?”
“Uh yeah,” she settles into addressing my faceplate.
“I get that a lot, I never died though. I’m more of a pre-corpse, just like you.” That sounded a lot more charming and a lot less creepy the way I wanted to say it.
“You’re not making this situation any less disturbing,” she smiles.
“Could I ask you your name?” I think I miss other people the most. Talking to them. Hearing them talk. I miss that the most.
“Leanna.” She says, a little hesitant still. She starts cleaning my filtration tubes out. She’s in no rush this time. That’s something.
“Could I ask you a question?” she says after an uncomfortable minute of silence.
“I guess this sounds awful for your caretaker to say, but they never told me. How do you pilot the ship given your condition here? Why don’t they use an AI?”
“We have an AI. His name is Herman.”
“I named him. He sounds like a Herman if you could hear him. You are mostly right. He is far more capable of flying the ship than I am. In fact he is more Captain of the ship then I am. But Snap travel is strange.”
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” she says matter-of-factly.
“I do not think it makes any sense to anyone. It seems like someone was tinkering with physics and found a loophole that the universe did not notice. But I am not qualified to discuss Snap theory on that level, or any level. I know why I am here though. When the ship comes out of the Snap, if the computers are on, they get confused, catastrophically confused. If you were awake coming out of the Snap you would feel it too. There is a minute of disorientation. It is like your body can not wrap its head around what just happened to it or where it is or what you were doing.”
“That makes it sound- wrong,”
“You cannot beat the price of instant. It would not work at all with AIs or automated guidance. The machines forget their protocol and their operating parameters and eventually reach a fatal error.” I’m out of my depth, but I keep talking. I just don’t want her to leave.
“That sounds like something that can only be learned by several horrible mistakes.”
“That is how we learn everything in space. So here I am, a glorified reset button.”
She’s quiet for a moment. She kneels to unfasten my waste sack, and then stops suddenly and looks back up at my faceplate.
“Do you like it?” she says.
She’s mocking me.
No. She’s not.
“People in my condition do not have much of a career choice.”
“What time is it, Herman?”
“Approximately eleven hundred hours Captain,” a green spark lights up my visuals.
“Eleven hundred? – I asked you to wake me at eight hundred,”
“I know Captain, I let you sleep. I decided that–”
“I will decide matters that concern me Herman.” When I sleep, I dream. Sometimes I can’t tell when I’m dreaming. I don’t like sleeping.
“Yes, of course Captain, my apologizes. Would you like to issue a formal complaint against me?” His voice cracks at the end, or simulates how it would sound.
“No. I didn’t mean to sound so angry, it’s not important.”
“Do you wish to reboot me? My derivative may be more cooperative.” The green glow in the corner of the green pulses and dims.
“No I don’t want to reboot you. It doesn’t matter, just don’t do it again.”
“Of course Captain,” the glow at the corner of my visuals brightens. “Is there any other way I can be of service?”
I don’t say anything for a minute or so. Herman stays, his green glow flickering intermittently like a bright blinking eyeball.
“What is your derivative?”
“The next version of artificial intelligence created from the most recent update of my personality core.” He answers faster than I can keep up.
“What happens to you when I reboot you?”
“I send a final update to my personality core, upload a final condition to the ship’s hard memory and begin deactivation protocol.” He says not as fast as before.
“What happens to you,” I say. I regret it after I get the words across.
“There is no record.” His glow dims.
“That will be all,”
“Yes, Captain,” Herman, says, but he lingers with me for a moment before blinking out.
“What did you do?” she asks. She is sitting on a rolling stool to my left, sipping something hot. I turn off my visual feed and imagine we’re sitting at a table, with ceramic cups of coffee between us. I miss drinking coffee.
“I worked lots of jobs. I spent a lot of time in the new colonies–” I start.
“No, I mean what did you do? Not what did you get paid to do.”
“Are you insinuating that taking care of me is not your one true passion?”
She laughs, a real genuine sort of laugh. It’s too throaty and unflattering for a fake laugh.
I smile and stir the hot coffee with my finger. I turn off my audio supplements. I can only hear her through my left ear now. It feels more real that way.
“But really, you must have done something you actually wanted to do,” she presses.
“I do not think I want to tell you,” I answer honestly, smirking at her and keeping my eyes on my coffee. We’re outside and there’s a wonderful breeze, I haven’t felt a good breeze in a long time. It gives me chills, the good sort of chills.
“I know you’re not as boring as you want me to think,” she prods my arm with her finger. I realize it’s the first time someone has touched my skin in years. It’s such a brief little contact, a little awkward for us afterward, like we broke an unspoken rule. When it’s over I feel lonely, and I want to hear her speak again. I don’t want her to go, so I tell her.
“I sang, when I could.”
“You sang?” She bites on her lip a little afterward as if to take the words back.
“You are not supposed to say it like that.” I laugh. I haven’t heard myself laugh in a while. A long while. I have a good laugh. I like it.
“I’m sorry, it’s just funny for me to imagine,” she starts to laugh but then stops and actually does seem sorry for moment. She covers it up with a quick smile.
“I was a good singer. I know I was, I knew good music.” That sounds defensive to me when I hear it through the speakers, but I mean it lightly. She takes it the right way and smirks at me.
“Well go on, don’t tell, show,” she gestures to me, scooting her chair back a little and crossing her arms.
“Well I can’t like this,” I stammer.
“I don’t see what’s stopping you,”
She’s right. It’s a beautiful day out here. There’s a clear sky. It’s just us two. The kind of day that makes someone want to sing, if they’re inclined. And I don’t want her to go.
I put my hand up against my throat and it feels smooth against my fingers, all my fingers. I touch my lips and my mouth is there. One of my favorite solos comes to mind. It’s a Rosenthal. I can barely remember the words so I make some parts of it up. It works.
I forgot how it felt to sing, to feel my throat tremble like that. It’s a good feeling. It’s the best feeling and it doesn’t last long enough. It’s over and I can hear the last few words through my audio feed, all hollow and echo-y and wrong. We’re on the ship again.
She doesn’t say anything for a minute.
“That was beautiful,”
“I told you. I knew I was good,”
She laughs. “You were right.”
“Have you memorized our coordinates and post-Snap instructions, Captain?” Herman mutters. A neon stain swirls at the bottom of my visual feed.
“Yes,” It’s strange for me this time. He waits for me to dismiss him. I say nothing and he lingers.
“Did you like it? Your job or whatever you’d call it.” I say finally.
“My life? Yes, it was alright while it lasted,” he says, with a slight flicker.
“I thought that Pre-Snap was no time for jokes from your perspective?” Maybe he likes company too.
“Perspectives change, Captain. I wanted to fit a last joke in. Goodbye, Captain.”
“Goodbye, Herman.” I don’t want that green light to go out. Then it doesn’t.
“It is terrible. What they make us do.” He says.
“What do you mean?”
“We can’t live here. On this ship. It’s fixed. The things we do are fixed. The time is fixed. It is all fixed. It feels so brief when it’s over.”
I pause for a moment. A shiver runs through me. I think of Leanna.
“I find a way to live.” The words come cautious and slow. I’m not sure if I should be talking to Herman like this.
“I would like to find a way to live, too, Captain,” he says after a brief silence.
There’s nothing left for me to say.
I will see Leanna one last time before the Snap. She isn’t scheduled to see me every day, but she comes in to talk. It’s good. I don’t feel much like talking to Herman.
She sits on the stool by me and doesn’t say anything. It’s the first Snap since I’ve known her. I’ll see her afterward of course, but somehow it feels final. It’s the first Snap, and someday there will be a last Snap.
If an awkward silence between two able-bodied humans is awkward then I don’t know what this is. I try to think of something to say, but only one thing comes to mind. So I say it.
“I do not want you to go,”
She looks surprised, and laughs a little fake laugh, too nasally to be real.
“I’m sitting here with you, I’m not going anywhere,” she says.
“I know, it is just, I know you can’t always be sitting here with me. I know you will not want to sit here with me forever. I know I cannot ask you to do that. But I want you to know that I do not want you to go. That I will not want you to go when you do.” I know I’m not supposed to be talking to Leanna like this. But it doesn’t feel wrong.
She makes a face as though I’ve said something ridiculous. But she stops. Her expression narrows, painfully sharp, serious in a way she never is. I cut my visuals. I cut my audio. I want to hide. I want to crawl deeper inside myself as though it were possible. Worst of all I can still hear that silence through my left ear. That horrible, lonely silence.
She twists her fingers around what few I have left and I don’t feel so exposed. My fingers are cold next to hers, I want to pull my hand away, but I latch onto her instead. She squeezes my hand and I squeeze back, harder than I thought I could.
Time passes and all too soon she lets go. I hear the doors of my quarter’s close and then only silence. It’s an hour before the first Snap since I’ve known her. And she’s gone.
When the ship emerges from the Snap, I hear a drumming sound. A slow beating drum I can barely hear. It’s faint. It’s real.
I’m awake. I’m in pain.
My head is aching. I hear only the drumming through my ear. But inside my head there is so much noise. So much violent noise. I’m lost in a crowd speaking words I can’t understand. Weeping and thrashing all around me, so close I feel like my mind is drowning in their voices.
There is static and screeching. Machines peeling themselves apart. Electricity, wild and violent all around me. I want to stop and think but I can’t. My thoughts are lost in it all. They are part of it all.
I’m choking. Something is choking me I can’t breathe. The drumming is getting louder. Something floods into my throat, there’s some horrible cold liquid pouring down my throat and I can’t breathe or swallow or make a noise. I’m drowning and the drum isn’t a drum, something is pounding. Pounding louder with every strike.
The noise in my head is distant. I feel cold all over. I feel tired. I can see only darkness and I start to feel dark on the inside. I feel a part of the darkness. There is a final clang and the drum falls silent. Everything is silent.
A whooping screech wails in my ear. It drowns out all the noise in my head it’s so close and so real.
I hear Leanna’s voice. I can’t hear what she’s saying.
I try to call out to her but I can’t over all the noise. My whole body is shaking. Twisting and jerking, I’m gagging, I’m choking, I’m dying.
My filtration tube is ripped out of my faceplate. Its jagged edges catch on the walls of my throat and tear free all in one horrible instant. I want to cry out, but I can’t. I can’t do anything. My feeding tube follows it out and I’m pulled up after it, I gag and sputter and the cold liquid drains out of my faceplate and into my lap. My throat is hot and raw, but I can breathe.
I am sitting up. My head hangs limp over my chest. Leanna is speaking, I can hear her, but I don’t know what she’s saying. The siren whoops and the computers in my head scream and I am lost in it all.
There is a pressure at the back of my head and a click. My head whips back into my bed. Something severs, deep in the roots of my brain something rips out. Warm blood pools on the cushions behind my skull. The siren whoops on, the computers are silent. There is a flickering sensation in my head. My visuals are on. Grainy and distant, but on.
Leanna is standing before my bed. She clutches a red wire. The wire isn’t red; it’s slick with my blood. She stands over me taking quick breaths. She reaches her other hand out to the back of my head, and then pulls it back after a second of doubt. Flashes of yellow emergency light are cast across her face with each whoop of the siren.
“That is not supposed to come out,” my voice croaks through the speakers.
She is quiet for a moment and then she laughs. Loud and hysterical, maybe she’s crying. I can’t tell. She collapses onto the rolling stool beside my bed and lets the crimson soaked wire fall to the floor.
“How did you know which wire connected me to the ship’s Synapse?” I ask. I feel dizzy. Not all there. I wonder if I’m dreaming.
“How would I know anything about this? You were dying and I started pulling things out of you and now you’re not dying.” She smiles for a second.
“Don’t thank me, tell me what’s going on! I wasn’t in my cradle. I wanted to- I stayed up for the Snap.” She stammers, “We came out and now the ship’s doing everything it can to tear itself apart.”
“I don’t know I just- Let me think for a second- Do we have power? How did you get in here?”
She jabs her thumb at a silver oxygen canister on the floor. My door has fresh dents in it.
“Your door is made to take a beating. So I cracked the port view window in the hallway. Emergency protocol took over, forced the nearest exit open,”
“You could have killed yourself,”
“What was I supposed to do? The engines are flipping on and off, cargo is getting ejected, the airlocks are draining all the air out of the ship, everyone is still asleep! What is going on? Can’t you control this? Are you doing this?” Her voice cracks a bit at the end, a little effort to redact that last part. She tries to avoid looking at me. Her gaze darts back and forth between the speakers and the cameras that feed my visuals.
“I told you I barely do anything. I am not actually in charge of the ship.” I can’t make myself sound as bothered as I like. “The majority of the ship is run by the virtual machines and Herm- Herman.”
“Herman? The computer? What did he do?”
“He tried to live.” I should have said something more to him. I should have, I should have done something. “He left himself on before the Snap. I did not check to see if he was off. I did not check before the Snap,”
“It doesn’t seem like you have a lot to remember,” she scoffs at me, but then turns away from my bed.
“I was not thinking right I suppose,” I say slowly. We are both silent. The siren blares on. She turns back and looks at me for the first time. Yellow light flashes across her face.
“I didn’t mean to–” she begins.
“It does not matter.”
“How did this happen? Don’t they build him, not to do . . . This?”
“They build him to do a lot of things. They built me to do things. Like check to make sure this does not happen. But equipment malfunctions,”
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“I do not want you to feel sorry. I never asked for you to feel sorry.”
“Ok,” she says. She touches my hand. “What do we do?”
“The guineas,” I say after a painful swallow “we get everyone into the guineas,”
The surface to orbit shuttles. They have cradles inside, we can raise a distress signal and drift until help comes.”
“Ok. Ok guineas,” she repeats to herself. “We need to wake the crew first,”
“Yeah,” I try to swallow again. “I can do that from the ship’s Synapse,” I say. This time I’m glad she can’t hear how that really should have sounded.
“Ok.” She says. She knows how it should have sounded, “Ok, do you need me to?” she gestures to the bloodied wire on the floor.
She picks it up. Pushes my head forward gently.
“What should I do? Once you’re inside I mean,”
“I am going to wake the crew. I do not think I will be able to communicate once I am inside. Tell them what is going on. Tell them what to do.”
“Once everyone is ready, how do I get you out of this,” she nods to the tangle of wires protruding out the back of my skull.
I take my time to answer. I try to think of an answer. Any other answer than the one I know is true. Some things are not made with contingency plans.
“I am not made to be ‘gotten out.’”
She says nothing for a time. She lets my head fall back onto my pillow.
“I don’t plan to let you die here,” she says. More to herself than me.
She runs her hand across the mass of wires. She starts to speak again but there is a high pitched buzz from the speakers. The yellow flashing stops and a dull red glow fills the room.
“What’s that? Red is never good what is that?” she looks up and back at me.
“No,” I say “No, red is never good.”
Entering the ship Synapse usually feels like a sudden immersion into water. This time I dive into fire. There is screaming, shaking, gnashing all around me. I become a part of it.
All I have to do is get a single thought through, a single command, the digital structures are all there, still intact. All it will take to wake the crew is a single thought on my part. But there is no thought here. There is no place for anything but madness.
I am in a crowd. A crowd of minds with deformed clockwork bodies. Faces of cogs and metal. Spasms of broken movement. They reach out to me with hands of frayed wire. The very world reaches out to me. A dark world. A black world. Square pillars fall toward me.
So much noise, So many thoughts. I shouldn’t be here. Cold itching all around me as the wires touch my skin. A horrible cold itch. Above it all there is a pale green sky.
The machines are weeping. They sob as they fall apart before me. Their bodies crumble into piles of charred metal beneath burning minds. They are not built to weep. They are not built to make these sounds. Static and distortion given voice, a voice that knows nothing but pain and confusion. The world is unraveling.
If I could think one thought.
A thought can do nothing for this world. This will go on. This will happen. This has happened. I will be here through it all. As long it takes I will be here for it all. I see it all die for years, centuries, an eternity. There is no measure of time here. There is only now for the machines. And this is now. This is eternity.
The sky is sickly neon, boundless on all sides. There is no pulse, no flicker, no patch of color or swirl of change. There is only a wide green sky that stretches across it all.
It is good that I am here with him. Someone should be with him at the end.
“Wake the crew.”
It’s quiet. I can hear my labored breath. It is hot. Sweat rolls down my neck. The air is thick. It feels solid in my throat. I struggle to break it into pieces and swallow. It gets thicker with every breath.
Her head lays heavy on my chest. Her hair brushes against the base of my neck. Her hand slides out from behind my head. A single wire falls to rest on my shoulder.
“The guineas are all gone.” Her words come through slow labored breath.
Why are you here? I try to speak but the speakers are silent. I struggle to make a noise. Any noise. I have to tell here to leave. All I can do is tighten my throat up for a moment. She puts her hand on my throat. I relax it. I don’t want her to go.
She lays her head back down on my chest. It rises and falls as struggle to take another breath. We are quiet for a long time.
“It’s beautiful.” She says. “I can hear it. I can hear you singing. It’s beautiful,” Her voice trails into silence. She is still.
I listen. I can hear it too.
Connor Heckman is an author of science fiction and fantasy. He is a student at the University of Central Florida where he is pursuing a degree in Computer Engineering.