Serial Sundays: Infinite Space

This was originally supposed to be the day I posted a review of something in the entertainment industry – a novel, a TV show, a movie, a game – and I had one almost ready to go last night. Close to two thousand words on The Gathering Storm, the latest instalment of The Wheel of Time series… and then MS Word took a giant shit and crashed out, then refused to let me auto-recover the auto-saved file. It even refused to let me bring back to life the saved copy I had, instead reverting to an earlier saved draft because of some sort of “corruption” in the file.

Six hundred words do not an adequate post make.

Then I was going to post a review of the last season of Lost since the next and final season begins Tuesday night, but halfway through, I realized that I just hadn’t watched it recently enough to adequately be able to sum up all the shit that happened with the time-travelling and Jesus-like resurrections and the Jughead nuke and the near-dozen or so characters they didn’t ignore for the entire season.

Yet, this is why I have a shit-ton of bandwidth. I fully expect that I’ll use up a couple of gigs of it tonight and tomorrow night rewatching the last handful of episodes of Season 5, just as a refresher as to exactly what the fuck is happening on that island.

So. Tomorrow on Monday Review: Lost in Cyberspace.

I know, my wit is lacking today. Fuck off, I’ve only had one cup of tea.

So today, instead of a Sunday Review, I’ve decided to offer up a piece of fiction from the depths of my Documents folder. Hopefully, by offering more and more of this every week, I’ll actually be motivated to finish the fucking thing off. It’s a sci-fi piece, but it’s not hard sci-fi. I call it:

Infinite Space in a Box

It’s a medically verified fact that people go crazy on long jags into jumpspace. There’s something about the blackness, the total void of anything but a faint shimmer of a color that can’t be accurately described as any real shade, which drives people absolutely nuts. Sometimes they kill themselves. Sometimes they kill their crew. Sometimes they just sit in their chairs and drool quietly over themselves until the psych teams come to gently lead them to asylums on pretty pastoral worlds to “recuperate”.

Me, I love it. I could sit here and stare out the porthole forever, just watching it all go by. Holly says it’s because my mind is already so small, the void can’t possibly break it into anything tinier. But she sleeps with Dave and uses gun oil for lubricant, so what does she know about sanity? Dave says it’s because I’m not human. He thinks I’m some weird human/alien hybrid who’s in tune with the complete utter nothingness of jumpspace, but there’s no such thing as aliens. So what does he know? (See Holly for further reasons.)

No, I love it because it reminds me of what a good gig I landed myself. See, I’m the most useless person on this ship, and everyone here knows it. Even Random, and he’s only ship’s AI. In this galaxy, technology and AI units are what get people from Point A to Planet B, and pilots are just a backup. A failsafe system, in case the computer pulls a Hal.

Personally, I have no idea what that really means, but Mom, bless her soul, used to tell me about how my father died. His ship’s AI developed a few quirks. And by “quirks” I mean “decided the biological inhabitants on his ship were a virus and needed to be purged from his system”. She said the term came from some story or another parents used to tell their kids at night centuries ago when they still thought the universe was flattish.

Mom’s always been a bit too much in love with Old Earth cultures, if you ask me. The first time she said fo shizzle to agree with something I said, I thought she was coming down with Hyperborean summer flu.

Yeah, the medevac team didn’t find it too amusing either.

But I wasn’t talking about Mom. I was talking about the sweet deal this job turned out to be. Not every ship has a pilot. Not every ship wants a pilot. In fact, very few crews will be caught dead with an actual, trained pilot amongst their numbers. It’s an embarrassment to the programmers, and those that control the programs control the universe.

But Thompson, the High and Mighty Lord Captain, wanted a pilot in case his AI fried a few too many electrodes and I was the lucky sod who answered his ad. To this day, I still think if he could get his hands on someone else with even half an idea on how to fly a ship manually, he’d cheerfully throw me out the airlock. And that’s fine. If I met anyone else with half an idea on how to effectively run a ship, I’d do the same to him.

Needless to say, we don’t get along very well.

But he keeps paying me to sit on my ass and stare out a window into pure nothingness, so I put up with him. I signed onto this crew three years ago. I’ve yet to have to do anything more strenuous than try to avoid having Holly kill me.

Of course, now I’ve jinxed myself.

I hate it when I do that.

***

We’d been in jumpspace for three weeks, and already we were starting to feel the strain. Well, the rest of the crew was starting to feel the strain. We’ve already established I’m quite happy staring out into the big empty. It might have been different if there’d been cargo in the hold, but there wasn’t. We’d dropped a load of farming equipment on Peyton Two, and were supposed to be shipping back several tons of fresh produce to the poor and underprivileged socialites of Sierra Prime. Then dear chef Paolo had gotten himself into a bit of trouble by knocking up the wrong girl. In this case, the planetary governor’s daughter. The governor hadn’t taken too kindly to it, and the cargo had gone to a, in the governor’s own words, more respectable crew.

For his troubles, Paolo had been left behind to marry the stupid girl. I missed his fritattas more than I missed him.

But that left us on the empty end of a return trip through jumpspace, with no fresh veggies taking up space in the cargo hold. You wouldn’t believe how hard I had to bite my tongue when Thompson ranted and raved about respectability and person skills and keeping one’s genitalia in one’s coveralls. And I only bit my tongue because we were still planet-side and there was no way in hell I wanted to be forced to stay on that rock.

So three weeks in, not even halfway through the jag, and everyone’s tiptoeing around everyone else. No one wants to be the match that sets the powder keg off and blows everything to hell and back. But they’re all waiting for it, eyeing each other to see who’ll be the one to do it.

Of course, I’m the one who gets eyed the most. I would have felt insulted if I didn’t occasionally go out of my way to exacerbate a tense situation. Out of all the crew on the Lucida, I was the most likely to light the match.

But honestly, it wasn’t me that did it.

It was Random.

***

Random was an alright guy, for a computer program. He flew the ship, made sure we found the right dark-matter slipstreams and generally kept everything running smoothly. Sure, there were a few bugs in his nodes that Julie couldn’t root out no matter how hard she tried, and he’d once caught a virus that had everyone breathing an oxygen/helium atmosphere for seven days before Jules managed to burn it out and reset the atmo filtration subroutines.

That was a fun week. Everyone sounded like chipmunks. I even got away with calling Thompson, a not inconsiderably sized man, Tyson a few times. He never understood why I, and oddly Holly, found it so amusing.

Sometimes, Mom taught me good things.

Still, I never pictured Holly as the kind of girl who watched vids of Old Earth boxing matches. I guess you really do learn something new every day.

Random was overall my favorite person on this ship, and he wasn’t even technically a person. He was always polite, inhumanly mild-mannered and never turned down a chance to kick my ass at blackjack.

And so it was, at a quarter past midnight, that I was sitting in my usual spot near the nav console and getting the bejesus whupped out of me by a glorified toaster for the eleventh straight game. He promised me he never cheated, but I didn’t believe him. He controlled the holo-board and the odds were astronomical that I’d bust six times in a row while dealer – namely him – came up aces and kings every time.

“I still say you cheat.” I poked at the board. The holocards neatly flipped over and shuffled themselves back into the deck.

“I have not been programmed with such an imperative in my databanks, Daniel,” said Random. It was the closest he’d ever gotten to being offended. Trust me. I kept track.

“Not been programmed my ass. You didn’t exactly come out of the compiler yesterday, buddy. There’ve been at least a half dozen programmers at you in the years you’ve been online, and all of questionable ethics.” I rapped the table with a knuckle and grinned. “Now come on. Deal me another unfair hand.”

“As you wish, Daniel.” I smirked at that. It was as good an admission as any that the electronic bastard cheated his terabytes off. The cards faded and then reappeared on the board, shuffling in midair. The first one was spinning through the air to land in front of me, when the whole program suddenly halted.

I stared at the card, hanging frozen in the air, for a good ten seconds. I prodded it with a finger, but it stayed right where it was. “Uh, Random? Buddy? You need to actually deal the cards for me to play.”

There was a long moment of silence, which in retrospect should have been the first warning. Random never ever kept someone waiting for a response unless he was instructed to, or he’d told them he might. It was part of his program, so deeply imbedded in his core I doubt even Julie could have rewired it without some serious programming facilities on hand.

Something beeped on the console.

“Random?”

“Daniel, I’m afraid the Lucida will have to exit the dark-matter slipstream and return to realspace.”

I blinked and turned to the nav console to bring up the specs on our current course.  The slipstream we were following wasn’t exactly one of the best-travelled, but there weren’t any instabilities projected ahead.  I couldn’t see any turbulence or bumps or even slight variances in the stream’s current for at least the next week of travel.  “Random, I’m not seeing anything on the–”

“I am detecting anomalous energy signatures in realspace ahead,” Random cut in.  That shut me up quicker than anything ever had before.  He never interrupted anyone, no matter how boring, discomforting or inane the conversation.  In fact, he’d once listened to Lux lecture on the inner workings of the Sierra Prime sandworm for two and a half hours, and even added his own thoughts to the discussion.   “This vessel will exit jumpspace in thirty seconds.”

Half a minute was nowhere near enough time to prepare for realspace reentry, and Random knew it.  I tried for reason.  “If we exit jumpspace now, without proper preparation, the sheer forces of it could tear the ship apart. What the hell are you doing?”

“The signal I am detecting matches protocol eight-niner-five-seven-two,” Random replied as though it were the most reasonable explanation in the void.  “Imperatives associated with this protocol indicate immediate interception to be the appropriate course of action, as the signal will pass beyond detection range in less than one minute.  It is highly likely the ship will survive unplanned re-entry, with only collateral damage.  This vessel will exit jumpspace in fifteen seconds.”

From the back of the ship, I could hear the hum of the jump engines crank up a few notches, from a dull, barely noticeable buzz to a whining high-pitched complaint I could feel in my molars.  An ominous creaking came from my left; I didn’t want to look at the bulkhead in case the metal was pulling itself apart.  For the first time, I realized exactly how fragile a ship truly was.  Also for the first time, I realized that maybe Random had picked up a few more bugs than anyone had ever considered.

“Random…”

His tone was maddeningly calm.  “This vessel will exit jumpspace in five seconds.”

“Shit!”  I managed to pry my hands from their death grip on the chair arms and threw them in opposite directions.  My right hand hit the alarm, and the emergency klaxon began pealing.  My left hand slammed down on the communications button, and I screamed like a little girl for Julie.

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2 thoughts on “Serial Sundays: Infinite Space

  1. Pingback: Penguins, Autism, and Personal Stuff « An Idiot's Guide to Idiocy

  2. Pingback: Penguins, Autism, and Personal Stuff « Word Asylum

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