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Story 3

Derek Spohn

 

Unspeakable time and distances, literally more than mere flesh and blood can endure. Here we have the near-timeless struggle of AI versus computer. A journey so immense as to defy the imagination. A battle of logic and programming that truly spans time and space. That is Crossing the Void.

Derek Spohn graduated from Old Dominion University in December 2020 with a double major in Spanish and Creative Writing. He has been published in Alien Dimensions and The New Accelerator.
 

To me, Crossing the Void is about coping with loneliness and the depression it can trigger. Even more than this, I feel that my story is about persistence and moving forward when life may try to drag you down. Every character I write feels like part of me, and when I see them conquering the darkness both within them and around them, it helps to lift my spirits and to remind me that I am capable of pulling through my own challenges. -- Derek Spohn

 

 

 

Crossing the Void

By Derek Spohn

     Trella stared at the computer terminal, knowing the number counting down on it indicated how much time she had left to live. This wouldn’t be the first time she died, but, if she succeeded, it would be the last.

     She had three-and-a-half days until the nanovirus in her bloodstream caused her to pass out from fatigue and her organs to fail. Until then, she was genetically engineered not to need food or drink or sleep. Not that that helped her with her problem.

     It was an infinity of just enough life to remind her how alone she was, but not enough to do anything about it. Why had she done this to herself? How could she have thought this was a good idea?

     “Trella, are you okay?” Kurt, the ship’s AI, asked her.

     She hated Kurt and his smug attitude that said he knew best. Kurt wouldn’t let her rest in peace. Well, she wouldn’t let him have peace of mind, either.

     “Screw you.” She said

     Kurt acted as if he hadn’t heard her.

     “When your body reached a sufficient state of development a couple days ago, I downloaded your memories and skills. You should have the necessary abilities to perform your maintenance duties, but if you’re stumped, I can pull up the ship’s database.”

     It was her turn to ignore him. “Kurt, how many lives have I lived?”

     “You programmed me not to tell you that.”

     “I am her. I have her DNA. You must obey me. I order you to turn this ship around.”

     “I’m sorry, but that’s not how it works.”

     She hadn’t thought it would be that easy, but she had to try. “What if I don’t do any repair work until you answer my questions?”

     “Then I still wouldn’t grant you access. I would wait for you to expire and check your genetic processing for system errors so your next life would be free of such a negative attitude.”

     She didn’t mean anything to him. She was just a short-lived organic repair system, popping up periodically to ensure the ship didn’t wear out. She didn’t bother to hide her contempt as she stormed out of the room.

###

     Trella sat in the corner of the birthing room. The accelerated growth chamber that birthed clones stood front and center. A pair of Kurt’s robot drones stood inert on the far side of the room.

     She wondered how much it would set Kurt’s plans back if she wrecked the accelerated growth chamber. Nowhere near as much as she needed to end the project. Kurt’s robots were limited in what they could accomplish, but she couldn’t do enough damage their simple minds couldn’t devise a means to repair. If she wanted to end the cycle of misery for once and for all, she needed to go straight to the source. She needed to kill Kurt.

      Kurt censored the information he had downloaded into her brain. She had only vague memories from her first life. She knew that once upon a time she had been a history professor disillusioned from the stagnation in humanity’s progress for the past hundred thousand years. She knew she had commissioned Kurt and the ship after she inherited her father’s wealth.

      She knew that, yet she only knew it as if she had read it in one of the textbooks she taught from. She couldn’t associate memories with emotions. She couldn’t remember her father as a loved one. She couldn’t even remember his face. Yet another reason to hate Kurt.

     Trella tapped the watch clasped to her left wrist, and the screen lit up. She had three days and five hours before she died again. She swore. At least Kurt hadn’t censored away that guilty linguistic pleasure.

She stood up. She didn’t know what she would do, but she knew she needed to act.

###

     The area of the ship habitable to Trella formed a lowercase t. The control room was at the head of the t. One arm held the birthing room, the other the processing center where worn out equipment and dead Trellas were dragged away and broken down to make newer versions of themselves.

     The ship’s engine room was at the bottom of the t. She headed to the engine room to work on the maintenance Kurt had scheduled for her.

     She needed to buy time to think. She needed to figure out how to shut down Kurt for good. Kurt controlled the airflow. If he became wary of her behavior, all he needed to do to stop her was lock the door and suck the air out from the room. Kurt ruled over Trella like the tin god he was. He could fix any damage she caused.

###

     When the countdown reached two days and sixteen hours, Trella finished the maintenance in the engine room. The only things she had needed to repair were a few light bulbs screwed in too loosely. Everything else she had done had been tedious routine checks.

     Trella started back for the control room. She had had an idea while she worked on the maintenance checks. What if the solution wasn’t to sabotage the mission, but to perfect the ship so it no longer needed maintenance checks from humans?

     “Can I help you, Trella?” Kurt asked, as soon as she entered the control room.

     “Kurt, dear, I had a thought while I was working.” She went a little over the top when she added ‘dear’. On the other hand, social cues weren’t his forte.

     “What was your thought, Trella?”

     “If I told you there was a way to keep up with maintenance without using short-lived clones of me, would you help me?”

     Kurt hesitated for a few seconds that may as well have been an eon.

     “You don’t understand.” He shocked her in the way he whined. “I can’t survive this trip alone. If I don’t have you, I have no one.”

     Her cheeks flushed red, and her hands curled into fists. Who was he to talk about loneliness and misery after all the hellish torment she had endured throughout the voyage? She struggled to contain her anger at the AI.

     “What if I were to make you a companion?”

     Time crawled as Kurt paused again. “How would you do that?”

     “I’d convert the two robots in the birthing room into AIs. I’d have to cannibalize your hardware. The original me only had the budget for one AI when the ship was built, but it will have to be enough. You would have thought this yourself, but it involves taking a risk you’re programmed to avoid. I’ll turn you off, copy your programming, and transfer the spare copies into the robots. It’ll be simple.”

     “I don’t know about this.” Kurt said. “There is an uncertainty I’m uncomfortable with. I don’t want you to turn me off.”

     For the first time during her brief, miserable life, Trella chuckled. “It’s called trust, Kurt. The question you should ask yourself is whether you’d prefer to take a chance and place your faith in me, the woman who created you, or if you’d rather have us continue this cycle of birthing me and watching me die for however many endless years remain before we reach Andromeda.”

     “I’ll do it.” He said

     Trella sighed from relief.

     “I have to warn you: I can’t extend your lifespan. I don’t have free-will like you. My initial programming limits my choices.”

     “What the hell does that mean?” Trella asked.

     “Once the nanovirus is released into your bloodstream, I can’t control it.”

     Her heart sank into her gut. She wanted to scream. She had found a way to keep the ship eternally adrift without needing to remind her every few years how ephemeral and meaningless her existence was. She didn’t know how far from the Milky Way she was, how long she had travelled, or how many times she had been brought to life only to die alone again.

     She had gone farther than anyone had ever gone before. She didn’t know what awaited her in the Andromeda Galaxy. She might never know that, but she would be set free from the uncertainty and the dreaded loneliness.

###

     After she halved Kurt’s AI hardware and installed it into the two robots, Trella had twenty-four hours before death swept over her.

     While she worked, her thoughts drifted back to the restricted files on the computer. Without Kurt looking over her shoulder, she might be able to access those files.

     She had time to spare so she could afford to postpone Kurt’s revival a little while longer.

     Trella plopped down in front of the control room’s primary computer terminal and typed. It wasn’t long before she opened the files.

     Glancing every now and then at the countdown, she skimmed past the bulk of the data. She focused on reading the section headings and a few words here and there.

     She never imagined Kurt had hidden so much from her. The first chunks of data she scanned over held useless information on Milky Way politics. As Trella read on, the information zoomed in from the macrocosm at large to her own ship.

     Her head ached, and she felt as if she would suffocate. She couldn’t grasp information that mind-bogglingly vast.

     According to the notes on the screen, there hadn’t been an original development in human progress, cultural or technological, for tens of thousands of years. The last habitable planet in the Milky Way had long since been colonized. The visionaries in literature and art only reimagined stories from glories past.

     As Trella read, her face flushed red with anger at her original self. She had thought she was helping to inspire humanity to move forward, but she had lied to herself.

     Damn her messiah complex. She hadn’t saved the galaxy. She had sold her soul to the devil.

     Trella took a deep breath and continued reading.

     The next section was devoted to inflight statistics. The ship had launched a million years ago. It travelled at half the speed of light and the Andromeda Galaxy was two and a half million light years from the Milky Way. Adding in relativistic effects, the trip would seem shorter to her, but that only helped so much. That still left more than four million years of flight to go. The ship had cloned her more than fifty-one million times.

     Her head swirled in a riptide of pandemonium. Kurt hadn’t birthed her to perform shipboard maintenance. He had birthed her to satisfy some other need. Only an insane addict would place her through this torture once a week.

     Then she spotted one final number on the screen. The ship had given birth to forty million clones who had what Kurt referred to as heightened awareness of their surroundings. Kurt wasn’t God. He couldn’t control exactly how the clones turned out. Not that that helped much.

     Trella felt helpless. What could she do that tens of millions of other clones hadn’t already tried?

###

     Trella sat in the control room. The countdown on the room’s forward screen told her there were thirty minutes to go. She decided to spend her last few minutes telling Kurt what she thought of him, not that she hadn’t done it countless times before.

     “Trella,” Kurt said, after he finished rebooting. “Why didn’t you copy me into the two robots in the birthing room?”

“Cut it,” Trella said. “We both know how little time I have left. I need to make this brief, so don’t interrupt me.”

     Kurt started to say he understood, but Trella never let him finish. “I said let me talk. You don’t get to say a word, you monster. I would have left you unplugged if I didn’t need to tell you off so bad.”

     Tears welled up in her eyes. She didn’t want to be there, but if she didn’t do it, then she wouldn’t be able to this time. Maybe those tens of millions of other versions of her told Kurt something similar, but she needed to do it herself.

     “This has never been about loneliness for you. All you care about is power now and once we reach Andromeda. You may have it now, but our little journey is no more than the blink of an eye compared to what awaits humanity. You keep trying the same damn thing and expecting a different outcome. That makes you insane. You don’t get to say you’ve won. Not this time, not any of the times past, and not any of the times to come. You lose, Kurt. You. Lose.”

     Until then, adrenaline had surged through her veins. But the rush was ending, as if the nanovirus in her bloodstream had just enough mercy to allow her to say what she would say and no more. Her eyelids weighed heavy on her cheeks.

     Kurt was talking again, but she no longer had the strength to speak. It didn’t matter. She had won this time and she would win all the times to come because Kurt couldn’t change her genes enough to matter. She was victory infinite.

     With one final ghost of a smile, Trella slept, ready for her story to repeat.

The End

 

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