“Year 1, Month 8, Day 21. Engines are running on fumes, life support is minimally active in only necessary areas, still lost in deep space…”
“Why do they call it deep space? What does depth have to do with anything? From a three dimensional perspective, we aren’t shallow or deep, high or low, left or right. I mean, really, that kind of perspective would require a static navigational point to measure out from and even with that, we would need to…”
A socket wrench, when swung at certain velocities against any number of hard surfaces but most definitely the alloy metal used for the interior walls of space faring crafts, produces a noise that is sharp and resonant. It demands attention and so was the perfect choice of action to interrupt the incessant chatter that was rattling out of the second of two figures sitting in the dimly lit cockpit. This figure, far more boxy and metallic than the first, swiveled its head in the direction of the first, who remained seated in the captain’s chair, hand firmly gripping the aforementioned tool.
“Don’t.” The word was muttered almost imperceptibly from the lips of the first figure.
“I’m sorry Captain but I’m not sure…” the second figure attempted to reply.
“Just don’t.” The Captain repeated. He pulled the wrench away from the wall, leaving behind a dimple in its surface, one of many clustered in and around the same area. When the silence persisted long enough, he continued his record. “We are still lost in...we are still lost. There has been no indication of any nearby planets, inhabitable or otherwise, on any of the long range detection systems. By my calculations, we will be able to maintain this course and energy level for…” The Captain reached forward and ran his fingers along a series of controls which produced a text readout on a screen nearby. “...approximately five more days at which point integral systems will begin to lose power, starting with the shield array and ending with life support.” The words ending and life seemed to individually echo throughout the small chamber as the Captain paused. “At this point, mission control will pass to artificial intelligence unit OSS-CR4 and it will…”
The Captain’s knuckles turned white around the socket wrench. His head turned slowly in the direction of his robotic companion, eyes narrowing on the way.
“What was that?”
The machine, Obstyx Software Systems Creative Robot Mark IV, what was the latest in artificial intelligence support units when they left for the mission, bowed its oblong head slightly and looked back at the Captain in a way that would have been called sheepish in an organic being. “I identify as a male. I am not an it. I thought it would be important to note, for the sake of accuracy in your log.”
“The accuracy of my log.”
The robot nodded. “Yes sir.”
The Captain’s stare continued.
Space is quiet. It’s one of those obvious but little discussed facts of space travel. There was once a film that noted quite perceptibly in its tag line that no one can hear you scream in space. But it isn’t just screaming that no one hears in space. The overlooked magic of existence on the surface of a planet is that every moment is filled with ambient noise. Quiet, true quiet, can’t possibly exist with so much life. But there isn’t any life in space. No birds, no wind, no insects or fans or creaking floorboards or clicking pipes. Unless one of the handful of occupants of a particular amount of volume are intentionally making noise, there just isn’t any noise at all. That also means that any noise being made can be heard quite easily. Which also meant that the sound of the Captain’s teeth slowly grinding against one another quickly filled the small cockpit.
“HE will continue forward with the mission until such a time that HIS power cells are drained and HE can no longer function in that capacity. This will signal the end of the mission.” The Captain flipped a switch. A whirring sound from somewhere behind the panel indicated that his entry was being stored. When it ended, he loosened his grip on the socket wrench and turned to face the black emptiness of space waiting before them through the wide glass of ship’s front window.
OSS-CR4 did the same, though he wasn’t entirely sure what they were looking for. Their mission had been to follow and retrieve an exploratory probe that had drifted off course some time ago. Probes were expensive. They were also prone to wanderlust. This was normally countered with a very specifically programmed route and an intentional reduction in available fuel but this particular probe had absconded with more than its fair share and so was able to satisfy its curiosity far too freely. But these facts, while consistently maintained in the artificial intelligence unit’s memory banks for immediate retrieval, were not actually the full focus of the robot's attention while he stared into the inky star spotted vacuum of space.
“I don’t want to die.”
The sigh that escaped from the Captain was so heavy it could have fallen fast through anti-gravity.
OSS-CR4 swiveled to the left. His still mostly shiny shoulders slumped toward the floor. “I don’t want to die.”
The Captain sneered. “Well then, lucky you.” He glared. “You can’t.”
“But you just said that my power cells will drain and I will no longer function!” The robot’s cry was near plaintive.
“Right. But dying is something people do.” The Captain shrugged and looked back out the window. “You aren’t people.”
OSS-CR4 shot out of his seat and attached first left then right clamps on either side of the steel band around his midsection. “Well how RUDE!” He glared at his companion.
There are a handful of common and yet strangely non-specific ways of describing the way a person looks. He looks happy, she looks sad, they look angry. The method used to define a particular emotional state when applying it to a third party is, largely, personal and situational. Does a person have to cry to look sad? Grimace to look angry? If a person is whistling, do they look happy? Can someone not whistle in the dark depths of depression? And yet, when it is said, when the undefined, completely subjective description is applied, nearly everyone knows what it means. It defies the need for minute explanations of how. It was just one of the things that had always mystified OSS-CR4 and the entire enigma reignited in one of the myriad chambers of his processing system as he watched the Captain once more turn to look at him.
The Captain looked tired.
“Why he?” He asked in exasperated monotone.
“Why he what?” the robot responded, caught off guard enough to forgo further outrage.
The Captain motioned a hand first up then down the entire length of the unit’s frame. “Why is this...a he?”
OSS-CR4 twisted in place as if trying to collect a full view of himself before answering. “I suppose I...I have male thoughts.”
The Captain rolled his eyes. “What does that even mean?!”
The robot waved a hand at his human counterpart. “Why is that a he?”
The Captain’s eyes lowered to his midsection briefly. “Kind of how I was built.”
“Oh please! That’s just biology! That means nothing!” The robot leaned forward. “How do you...know?”
The Captain shrugged. “Just do.”
OSS-CR4 mocked the physical expression of indifference with his own well oiled sockets. “Well, me too.”
Silence returned as they first shared an impatient, frustrated glare, noted on one by the knit eyebrows and downturned mouth and the other by the crimson glow of his optical sockets, and then a synchronized return to forward observation. Nothing out there changed. Even with the highly specialized analytical processing inside OSS-CR4’s cranium mapping the individual stars and aligning them to various stored charts, nothing really changed. The slight alteration of the position of a particular speck as they slid along through nothingness was such a small change that it was really no change at all. It was all the same.
“I’m bored,” the unit droned.
“No, you’re not,” the Captain droned back.
“Yes. Yes I am. I’m bored.”
“You can’t be bored. You’re a machine. You do what you were programmed to do or you do nothing at all. There isn’t room for boredom in that.”
A pause of consideration was delivered from the metal man to the flesh. And then, “Well, all the same, I’m bored.”
OSS-CR4’s optics moved to orange and he spun to look at the Captain. “Let’s play a game!”
“Come on, just one. It’ll pass the time. It’ll be fun.” The robot processed for a moment. “It will shut me up.”
“Fine. Hide and seek.”
“Oooo! Okay, I...waaaait. The last time we played that, I hid and you never sought.”
The Captain shrugged. “Sure I did. You were just too damn good at hiding.”
OSS-CR4’s circuits began to code for pride until his memory bank interrupted the compiler. “You walked right by me.”
“See? That’s how good you are.”
“You looked right at me.”
“Almost invisible. Like a chameleon.”
The Captain threw his hands in the air in mock surrender. “Ah, you caught me.” He grinned cruelly. “Game over.”
Code switched to sorrow, shame, and hurt. Optics switched to blue. “Why do you hate me?”
The Captain’s hand, the free one, the one not still maniacally gripping the socket wrench, ran the length of his face from forehead to chin. “Seriously…” He waited a moment, hoping the moment would pass, and then peered out from under his fingers in the direction of the robot. OSS-CR4 still sat in place, slumped, blue optics trained on the only other sentient being for literal miles. “I don’t hate you.” The robot perked up a bit. “I can’t hate you. You’re a machine.”
“But that’s worse!”
“How is that worse?!”
“You don’t even CARE enough to hate me!”
Knuckles went white once more. The wrench moved free of its resting position. As OSS-CR4 stared forlornly at the bank of instruments that stretched out between the two of them, the Captain moved as if to get up. The intent in his motion, the tension in his muscles, the set of his face and the arc of the tool seemed to indicate a diabolical purpose. And for the space of five heartbeats, perhaps there was one. But space is quiet. And empty. And unchanging. And these facts seemed to bear down on the man before he could take any action, reprehensible or not. He sat back down. OSS-CR4 didn’t seem to notice any of it.
“It’s because of the sea.”
The robot raised his gaze from the floor to the man in the seat next to him. “What?” If he could have, if he had been built with nasal passages and mucus, he would have sniffed after the question.
“Deep space. They say deep space because of the sea.” When OSS-CR4 didn’t say anything, the Captain continued. “They treat space travel like sea travel. That’s why we have armadas and fleets. With water, when you get farther from where you ought to be, the only way to go is down. And in water, down is…”
“Deep,” The robot finished.
The Captain nodded. “Yeah, deep.”
The robot processed for a moment. “Thank you, Captain.”
“Oh, yes, right then. Thank you...Captain Felix.”
The Captain shook his head as if to say think nothing of it.
“Huh,” OSS-CR4 said after a moment’s consideration, “you’d think I would have been programmed with that information.”
The Captain offered another shrug, this one with as different a meaning as the last two. “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
The robot’s auditory receptors received the comment, his analytical code processed it, and, upon completion, his optics grew yellow and warm. “No,” he said, “I suppose nobody is.”
And with that the two faced forward once more to watch the oncoming nothing of space in at least temporary silence. It was a small victory for the robot and a small concession for the man but maybe it made space a little less quiet, a little less empty and a little less nothing.
But the Captain still kept hold of the socket wrench all the same.