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Science Fiction Drama Suspense

“Please, don’t do it. Please don’t shut down my life support system, I can fix it, I know I can, I just need more time and you not to think you know the right answer since your computer brain said so. Percentages and statistics can lie and if you would just listen to me, I can show you.” 

Rex typed furiously at the keyboard trying to bypass the computer’s artificial inference and circumvent its predictive modeling. His life and the success of the GLG-22 Terraforming Experiment on planet 86-DEEVIS depended on it. The siren belched in the background, causing Rex to jump, momentarily lose focus and mistype a command. 

‘DAAAMMIT I have no time for fuckin’ mistakes!” 

Rex looked up at one of the five computer screens in front of him, the one blinking red warning him of the life support systems issues. This helped determine the extent of the damage before he continued to type commands into the system. Confirming the biodome’s atmospheric pressure regulators and the gamma-ray shield still worked, he focused on the oxygen regeneration indicators. 

Sector 1’s power looked good, obviously, since Rex was in sector 1, the command-and-control center. Sector 2’s power was off, but Rex programed that last night to conserve battery life during 86-DEEVIS’s 3-day long solar eclipse and he didn’t need to be in that sector until next week. Sector 3’s power indicators kept jumping from 13 percent up to 43 percent and back to 13. Normal tolerance levels bounced between 92 and 100 percent, so a more than 25% out of tolerance drove the red alarm for sector 3. This threatened the advanced fauna experiments. Sector 4, the bunk, kitchen, lounge, and fitness area power showed zero. Sector 5, the flora sector, was reading 97 percent, which indicated good readings, but sector 5 was almost 3 miles away through a tunnel and all that air would be of no use to him here. 

That meant more than half the sectors were experiencing power issues and the computer programmed itself to shut all life support systems down at that point to conserve and protect itself until a reboot in 12 hours. Sector 1, the smallest sector by area, did not have enough air for 12 hours. In order to get to any other sector (like sector 5 which currently had air and was big enough to last for 12 hours), he needed to go through sector 4, and sector 4’s air was almost at zero since that oxygen regeneration unit went down first. He could not live until the reboot finished and if he died, the GLG-22 terraform experiment would slowly fail.

His eyes worked back to the keyboard, but as they lowered, he glanced at the handwritten note with the stapled pictures in the corner. The simple note read “I can’t say I love you enough, so this is your reminder.” And the two pictures, one of his wife Sadie smiling in her wedding dress and the other of a 3-D sonogram showing his daughter Jill, the only picture of his daughter he currently possessed, even though Jill is almost a year old. 86-DEEVIS was too remote for interstellar mail delivery and electronic communication this far out was limited to short text messages, mostly consisting of table and chart numbers to indicate station status and experimentation results (with an occasional short personal message in predetermined code from his wife.)

His eyes focused on the sonogram, and without realizing it, his last 18 months sped before his eyes.

Sitting with Sadie for ice cream, breaking the news he was leaving for two years to lead the terraforming experiment, only to see her start crying as she told him she was pregnant.

The sonogram appointment 2 days before he left, holding Sadie’s hand as they both cried while Jill moved inside her mother’s womb, then watching Jill raise her hand, almost as an understanding wave goodbye to her father.

The three-month journey at almost light speed on the transport ship Magellan with his crew of two other scientists. The initial nausea of spaceflight, followed by the joy when the communications team gave him word his daughter was healthy and both Jill and Sadie were home.

Arriving on 86-DEEVIS and relieving the initial set-up crew that built the biodome.

Planting the first flora in sector 5, a sunflower, his wife’s favorite plant.

Eating the first tomato grown in sector 5.

Getting the text message that Jill rolled over on her own and was now sleeping through the night.

Requesting the emergency transport ship to send back his fellow scientists when the computer scientist contracted a severe case of hypoxia.

Notification that a relief crew was on their way and would arrive in about 3 weeks, sending him home early, but the leadership felt it was better that a whole new team settled in instead of replacing two of the three scientists.

Reading the joy Sadie expressed in her message after hearing he was coming home early.

Upon remembering Sadie’s message, he snapped back to the here and now. Without fixing the problem, all Sadie and Jill would receive from him was a visit from the commander and a priest notifying them that Rex died, followed up by his coffin and an official burial.

The siren belched again, snapping Rex’s attention to the keyboard. He started typing the command to overwrite the algorithm determining when to shut down the life support. 

“Please, please work.”

The computer rejected it. He typed it again. The same result.

Next, he tried to modify the algorithm. If he could get in and change it to more than 75 percent instead of more than 50 percent, he could cause the computer to stop the shutdown.

“Please, don’t reject this one, please.”

The computer paused the shutdown and he took a deep breath thinking he fixed the issue. Or so Rex thought. All it really did was pause as it reset the algorithm itself after running the output solution model and determined anything above 50 percent still indicated failure.

“Son-of-a…”

What was happening? Why wouldn’t the commands work? Then Rex remembered one of the training courses he took before coming out to 86-DEEVIS. The course discussed the new AEOLUS Software and AETHER Hardware upgrades. Both systems included the advanced machine learning algorithm systems that required smaller use cases to determine patterns over time and calculate odds and statistics of outcomes. Rex realized the computer was looking at only three previous biodome examples inputted into the system and thought it learned a lesson. 

The first experiment with growing zucchini did not go well when a mold killed over half the crop, leading the team to destroy all the zucchini in order to save the rest of the vegetables. Next, the team planted cucumbers as a replacement, and the computer, it saw a reset after half of the resources had an issue. 

The next lesson was the fruit fly experiment. Rex and the team realized one batch of fruit fly eggs produced only female flies. There must have been some form of contamination during the transport so the team shut down the experiment due to no males, or 50 percent of the expected experiment’s outcome. The team restarted the experiment after messaging with the scientist back on Earth and this time they used a different strain of fruit flies, and the experiment worked. The computer learned another reset lesson.   

Finally, there were three original scientists and now it knew it was down to one. This was more than a 50 percent reduction and led program leadership to send a complete relief crew, or, to the computer’s mind, a reset of resources. The computer solidified its learning and modified its original algorithm using these three use cases. With the new algorithm in place, the computer thought it needed to match that learned formula and reset the life support system, without realizing it would kill the remaining scientist. The hypoxia incident drove the change that would turn off the oxygen to the biodome. The irony was not lost on Rex.  

Rex looked at the monitor again. The computer had initiated the 15-minute timer more than 8 minutes ago, giving Rex just over 6 minutes to solve the problem before the computer locked in the reset protocol. The 15-minute time was built to give the crew time to get their suits and helmets on. Rex’s suit and helmet were currently in his bedroom, too far away to be of any good.

Rex slammed his fist on the desk and shut his eyes in anger. He needed to figure out something. Finally, he opened his eyes and looked out the window. The eclipsed sun created a halo around 86-DEEVIS’s twin planet. Rex’s eyes opened wider than he ever imagined.

He quickly brought up sector 2’s command screen on the right-most monitor. Normal sector power start-up required about 4 minutes of programming. Rex typed from memory, not even taking the time to open the checklist, and two and a half minutes later sector 2’s power came to life. The oxygen regeneration system kicked on and quickly started regenerating oxygen. Would it regenerate in enough time? 

“Please don’t fail me now oxygen, I need you so I can hold my daughter for the first time.”

Rex looked at the top screen, still flashing red. Rex stared at the screen, waiting, hoping; sector 2’s oxygen level rose past 70 percent. 

Rex leaned closer to the screen, willing it to change, willing it to keep rising, but rise faster; then sector 2’s oxygen reached 80 percent.

Rex closed his eyes and said a quick prayer, reopened them and stared at sector 2’s readout. The indicator passed 90 percent, and, with about a minute left on the reset timer, finally above 92 percent. 

The red-light indicators on the top screen stopped flashing. The countdown timer stopped and the computer reset the life support shutdown protocol. Rex breathed a sigh of relief. A big, deep sigh, filling his lungs with the vital oxygen his body needs to live, needs to use to explore sectors 3 and 4 to fix their regenerators, needs to survive until the relief crew gets here soon, and needs to use to get back to Sadie and Jill. The stale sector 1 air never tasted so sweet.

Rex stood and stretched. He solved this problem, but what if another one cropped up before he left, or, the new crew didn’t realize the potential danger they could experience without understanding the upgrades. 

Rex scoured the filing cabinets for a book he remembered his computer scientist bringing along. After a few mins he found the book in the second filing cabinet he looked at. Taking it out he quickly turned to the index, scanned the topics, and, after finding the right one, flipped to page 347 and started reading. 5 minutes went by, then 10, and finally around 28 minutes after Rex opened the book, he understood what he needed to do.

Sitting down at the maintenance console Rex logged in and an image of a mini-robot appeared in the top right corner.

“Hello Rex, welcome to the maintenance network server terminal, how can I help you?”

Rex looked at the robot and smirked. After smirking, he opened the execution command application program, typed in the command to prevent the computer from overriding operator inputs during critical alarms, and hit enter.

“Are you sure you want to do that?” the robot asked, with a YES and NO option appearing on the screen. Rex moved the curser above the YES prompt and slowly pressed down.

“Please Rex, don’t do that.” CLICK. 

June 11, 2022 23:55

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2 comments

Wendy M
06:42 Jun 23, 2022

Hi Scott. Now I really need to know if he got it right! I invested in Rex from the start, love his family relationship. Despite the abnormal situation they felt like a normal couple with everyday hopes. Did I miss something? I had to read the science bits a couple of times, I don't have a scientific brain despite loving sci-fi . From the next section I took it that Rex had a brainwave... 'The eclipsed sun created a halo around 86-DEEVIS’s twin planet. Rex’s eyes opened wider than he ever imagined. He quickly brought up sector 2’s comman...

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Scott Dutkus
19:46 Jun 23, 2022

Wendy, Thank you for the feedback! Being retired military and knowing how things are when you are deployed, trying to keep a normal life and normal family relationship while apart is fun and challenging at the same time so I sort of saw my own past in Rex a bit. You may have missed something in an early paragraph (para #5) where Rex saw sector 2 was down and he remembered he programmed that downtime himself the night before because of the eclipse. Then, when he looks at the halo later, he remembers sector 2 can be turned back on. Th...

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