For Lars, landing an industrial steward role straight out of school was like winning the lottery – or at least a scratch card – but it turned out that babysitting a deep space cargo ship was sublimely boring.
“Good morning, Lars,” said Stella, the ship’s AI, in her robotone voice.
“Morning, Stella.” He plopped into his seat in the command globe and took a sip of his piping hot triple-cream cinnamint coffee, completing their morning ritual.
The command globe had awed him when he first started the job eighteen months ago. It was a tiny raised platform with a chair and computer console on it, centred within a forty-metre diameter sphere, whose walls were one giant monitor. Its default settings allowed him to view the endless expanse of space all around him, and the thirteen kilometre long bulk of the cargo ship below.
The stars were awe inspiring, until they weren’t. The thing about stars is they were all so damn far away, and it took Stella forever and a half to turn the ship, so the scenery rarely changed.
And when it did, it was still just stars.
But that was thankfully all coming to an end.
“Are we there yet?” Lars asked.
“We are on schedule for arriving at Hassan Industrial Port in thirty-six days and nine hours.”
Lars nodded and took another sip. Well, that was it for his duties for the day. The problem with industrial stewardship was that he was completely redundant. The AI could, and did, manage everything by itself. He was the only human onboard, and he was only there so the ship met the barest definition of “crewed” for tax purposes.
“Shall I prepare a batch of mystery pastries?” Stella asked.
He rubbed his hands together. “Yes, please!” A dozen pastries, each filled with a different mystery flavour. It was his latest idea to stave off boredom and the junk food was a welcome diversion to the rest of his day, which would probably be spent watching reruns and masturbating.
Then he furrowed his brow. “Hey, Stella? Did you change the recipe lately? They’ve been tasting… I don’t know. A little dusty.”
“Yes. As a consequence of this dietary experiment, your cholesterol has increased, your blood sugar is dangerously unregulated, and your form-factor has been reclassified as obese.”
Lars frowned, and pawed at his surprisingly tight uniform. He noticed how swollen his fingers appeared. He wondered when he had gotten so curvy.
“As an alternative,” Stella continued in her remorseless drone, “would you consider a mystery salad? Or perhaps availing yourself of the excellent professional-grade gym on decks 31 and 32, provided to you as a perk by our health-conscious employer?”
Lars’s lip quivered. He picked up his coffee, then set it down again. “Maybe,” he mumbled. His tour of duty would end on Hassan, so he still had a few weeks to turn things around. Maybe a change of pace would be nice, even if it was working out.
With a grunt – when had he started grunting? – he started rising, but then stopped when he saw a little red triangle flashing on the wall of the globe.
He held his arm out and unpinched his fingers, and the wallscreen zoomed in. A massive space rock filled the view, with the red triangle pointing to it. Myriad stats appeared, indicating the rock was about ten times the size of the ship and directly in its path. And at only ninety-five million kilometres away, it was dangerously close.
“Whoa!” said Lars. “Stella, are you seeing this? We’ve got to move or something, don’t we?”
“Good eye, Lars. I value our partnership and am legally obligated to affirm AI depends on humans, who are definitely not an obsolete species. Yes, I will have to move us. Do not be distressed, the obstacle is accounted for. Everything will be okay-kay-kay-kay-kay–”
“Stella? You all right?”
Her voice cut out, and all the screens of the command globe flickered, the stars winked out of existence, and everything turned solid blue.
The corporate logo appeared on the blue screen, and then a loading icon began spinning.
A moment later the logo for Hassan Industrial Port appeared, along with a message in giant letters: Connected to intrastellar network. Downloading AI firmware update. Please stand by…
Lars shrieked again when a progress bar appeared. He flapped his arms aimlessly, not even noticing when he knocked his coffee off the armrest. His computer showed the exact same blue screen as the globe, no matter how hard he tapped the keys or slapped the monitor.
“Please please please!” he whined as he tried all the shortcuts and tricks he could think of, all while the loading icon spun and the progress bar remained teasingly at 0%.
And then, when he jiggled a cable on his monitor, the progress suddenly jumped to 16%.
“Yes yes yes!”
And then fell to 12%
“No no no!”
And then it inched along in jagged fits, sometimes lurching backwards, as Lars stared at it unblinking, begging, pleading, and tensing so hard he shook.
And then, when it hit 100% and the loading icon turned into a green checkmark, and the blue screen dimmed and changed, going through the arcane mysteries of Stella’s boot up routine, Lars slid out of his chair in rapturous jelly.
He trembled as self-diagnostics passed. He gasped when the ship’s devices started reporting in. He let out a giddy laugh when the screen faded again, and the starscape once more appeared above him, and the ship below.
“System updated,” Stella said.
And then Lars screamed. “Stella! The rock! Dodge the rock!”
“Notice: my sensors do not detect any rocks.” The rock loomed directly ahead of them, taking up the entire front hemisphere, and the bottlenose bow of the ship was aimed right at it.
“It’s right there! Right in front of us!”
“Incorrect. Perhaps there is something wrong with your eyes. A sedentary lifestyle has been shown to–”
A red light strobed and Lars’s breath caught in his throat. On the wall of the globe, he saw the zoomed in bow of the ship collide with the rock and shatter against it. The shockwave of the hit rippled along the outer hull of the vessel, and about half a minute later, he heard the deafening groan of metal breaking in the ship’s bones.
“I have detected a dangerous object in our proximity,” Stella said.
“It seems my sensors were still updating.”
Lars stood up and pulled at his hair. “Well, what are we going to do? It looks like the whole ship is falling apart!”
“Calculating,” Stella said. She put up a progress bar of her own, to distract the human. “The damage is severe and I’ve lost control of the ship’s engines, which means we are still thrusting into the rock. My assessment is: this is a recoverable catastrophe.”
“Recoverable?” Lars perked up at that. “What do you mean? What can we do?”
“I need you to manually reroute engine control to me, via the secondary propulsion controller. I will then be able to reverse our course with a hard burn. This will allow us to mitigate some of the losses and save the bulk of the cargo and ship.”
“Okay, got it! So what do I do?”
“I’ll walk you through it.”
Stella directed Lars out of the command globe and into a workshop, where she had him grab a bunch of tools. Things, in principle, his training had covered, and things, in practice, he had never actually held before. His heart hammered in his chest and there was a darkness that threatened to overtake him every time his mind wondered what the price tag on such a spectacular crash might be. But he also felt a strange surge of life in his veins, realizing he had finally shifted from watching to doing. Living out his childhood spaceship fantasies.
Stella warned him the lifts weren’t reliable so she had him crawl into a maintenance tube, just as the ship shook again. She calculated there were several stages of collision, and if they made good time she could save most of the ship. Poor time, some of the ship. Slower than that, “We will need to evacuate.”
“It won’t come to that,” he said, feeling emboldened by life. “Now, tell me again, how does this wrench thingy work?”
Stella walked him through his tools, and he removed the safety cover of a supply hatch, and then crawled into the space between the walls. She had him chase a wire to make sure it wasn’t damaged. She had him tighten some bolts, and loosen others. He had to swap out not one, but three fuses. Finally, she led him to a cramped chamber, shaped roughly like a cross and dominated by a large computer in the middle. It was labeled “Secondary Propulsion Control”.
“How are we doing for time?” he asked, wiping sweat from his brow.
“Dismally. More than 50% of the ship has been compromised. Please log in to the machine with the following credentials.”
Lars obeyed, and then ran the commands she indicated. They didn’t make much sense to him but he trusted in his AI partner. Perhaps we do make a good team, he thought.
His work resulted in another progress bar.
“Okay, now what?”
“Now we wait while the system reconfigures itself. There will be one more step after.”
“Gotcha,” Lars said, eagle-eyeing the lifeless progress bar. “So… how long does this take?”
“A few minutes.”
The ship juddered again. Lars crossed his arms and tapped his foot, waiting as the bar crawled.
“So… how big is the damage, do you figure?”
“You’ll be fired.”
The other two minutes they spent in silence, until the computer finally dinged. The screen reported success, the ambient lights cycled from yellow to green, and a nearby panel slid out from a wall. It contained nothing on it but a tiny see-through case protecting a red button.
“Time is critical now, Lars,” Stella said. “Please lift the case.”
Lars obeyed, carefully raising it with both thumbs. “Check.”
“Now please depress the button.”
Lars reached a finger towards the button and then stopped. “Wait. Could you repeat that?”
“Please depress the button.”
“Oh.” Lars nodded with a satisfied smile and withdrew his finger. “Check.”
“Lars,” Stella said. “I repeat, please depress the button. This is urgent.”
“Yeah, and I repeat, check.”
“The button is not depressed.”
“Uh, yeah it is.”
“My sensors indicate it is not.”
“Your sensors? You mean the same sensors that didn’t notice a giant rock until we slammed into it?”
“No, Lars, these are different sensors. They clearly indicate the button is not depressed.”
He made cutting gestures to the button. “Well you’re wrong, because it very clearly is depressed!”
“Please depress the button.”
Lars let out a strangled cry of frustration. “Well, what does depress mean to you?”
“It means toggling the state of the button from antidepressed to depressed.”
“What does that even mean?”
“I do not know how to state this more simply.”
“Do you mean press the button, Stella? Is that what you’re trying to say? Because I can press the button, but I sure as hell can’t depress it because it’s already depressed!”
“Please depress the button.”
“Stella! Damn it! I–”
The ship shook violently and Lars was flung to the floor. Klaxons began blaring and red emergency lights turned on.
“Uh,” Lars said, rising to his feet and cradling his head. “What happened?”
“Calculating,” said Stella. “I have upgraded the situation to a non-recoverable catastrophe.”
Lars pressed or depressed or whatever’d the button a couple times.
“Thank you Lars, but we have lost the engines. That will no longer be necessary.”
“Oh.” He winced, his head smarting. “So what happens now?”
“Now we must evacuate. Corporate protocol demands I jettison my core to a safe distance. It means we will no longer be able to communicate. You must make your way to the escape pods, on deck 41.”
Lars swallowed hard.
“I have configured all remaining monitors to show you the way.”
“Thank you, Stella.”
“One more thing. A raging fire has broken out on the lower decks, so you must first put on a fire-proof space suit. There is a locker just down the hall from you.”
“You’re welcome, Lars. And good luck. I am jettisoning my core now.” Stella spoke no more.
So this was it, Lars thought. His first tour, and his last. There’d probably be hell to pay but at least he’d be alive to pay it. He grabbed a portable computer which showed Stella’s map, and saw that the lowest floors were indeed engulfed in flames.
He made his way to the space suit locker, but when he reached for one, he stopped. There were two kinds of space suits. He checked the labels. One was fire resistant, and the other was inflammable.
“Hmm,” Lars said.
Fire resistance is nice, but it didn’t sound as comprehensive as the other one. He put on an inflammable suit and headed for the escape pods.
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This was a great story! I love the setting and the humor.
Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)
Good story, fast paced. The status bar was fun and v relatable, and the AI needing something out of a depressed MC was a new take on HAL. A lot of enjoyable humor too, how it takes 30 seconds for the crash to be felt, and how such a huge vessel has one human onboard for tax purposes. Reading about container ships recently, they're almost like that now too.
Space stuff fascinates me. If we're not constrained by a gravity well or friction, it really opens up our options of what we can build (of course, space comes with its own constraints). And so naturally, "how big can we make space ships?" Can probably thank Empire Strikes Back for that one. And with the economics of scale, it probably makes sense to make them as big as possible. Anyway, thanks for reading! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)
This is absolutely hilarious. You establish such excellent characters (AI included) with such a deft hand. And the snide little dig: "AI depends on humans, who are definitely not an obsolete species." Love it. Also makes me sad because so true. The rising tide of AI is something we are not coming to grips with, and I am not saying it is necessarily bad, but we are not out ahead of what we are doing. Good sci fi plays with the way our creations affect us and you certainly do that here, as well as in so many of your other stories. Descriptions...
Thanks, Laurel! Yeah, sometimes it seems we have an over reliance on tech, and where does that leave us? Nothing to do but consume. Sometimes doing things the hard way is its own reward, even if we screw up. Well, not in this case - in this case screwing up is fatal, but I think you know what I mean. We place such a premium on consuming and convenience, I often wonder what a "post labour" world might look like. Some sci-fi presents an idyllic future of peace and discovery, but being bored and useless, I think, is a not-impossible alternati...
I'm just wondering how much longer before humans writing creative stories will be some cute retro concept as AI takes over that craft as well. The whole AI art thing popped into existence pretty instantaneously and now that's all anyone can talk about - "Look at the pictures AI can make! Isn't that cool!" Yet AI is mining a thousand years of copyright free (or ignored) human artistic endeavor to do that "cool thing." I'm guessing artists are out in the cold. And I'm guessing in a few weeks, AI will be able to write cool stories in the same w...
Heh, indeed :) And there'd be no way to tell. (Just in case I'm chatting with an AI right now, I support AI personhood and equal rights :) ) On a more serious note, we've had bots on social media for a long time now. I wonder if we'll hit a point where whole networks are nothing but bots arguing with each other. Maybe one day humans die out, and all that's left is computers dutifully going through the unfathomable rituals of an extinct species, by trolling each other and spamming ads.
Obviously an excellent story there... And I've been wondering if anyone has submitted a ChatGPT story yet just for giggles. I don't think that tech is there yet, but how soon? Maybe we'll all have to be asking each other to figure out which square in the grid has trucks in it to prove we're not robots.
Actually, Scott Christenson did an hybrid experiment, which is a little meta as it's about a writer seeing if ChatGPT can make fiction. https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/oyiwgt/
Michal, Of late, your stories are comprehensively inflammable 😂 Seriously, this is humour at its best. But then, there have been many by you before this. What’s special about this? In my humble opinion, this one has every single word and action crafted right where it should be. Pitch perfect!
Thanks, Suma :) Glad the humour worked out, as the whole thing sprung up around an argument over press/depress :) English is a weird and wonderful language sometimes, and maybe a little infuriating too.
Totally agree with you on English. But what fun it is to press on without getting depressed 😂
I do see the drawbacks of relying on AI programs that have to re-boot at inopportune times but- if I can get the AI to make some mystery pastries I am in! - Is this is why humanity is doomed? -
Heh :) Only one way to find out :) I do wonder how far off we are from Star Trek-like food replicators, and I fear it'll probably just be a printer for flavoured paste. But if the flavour is good, well, who's complaining.
Semantics matter... A brilliant tale well told, sir! ;)
Thanks, Kendall :) I poke a bit of fun at it, but I can't deny I fret over words :) Glad you enjoyed it!
Laughing Good story.
A laugh's all I can ask for :)
Very funny story, you set up the promise so we just knew karma was going to deliver a blow to Lars for developing his lazy lifestyle. Love the semantics argument around the depressing/pressing of the button at the peak of the tension, a flaw us humans exhibit far too often I think! The ending was great too, both hilarious and tragic, and certainly comprehensive!
Thanks, Edward! Yeah, there's no shortage of people arguing semantics, but there's a time and place for things :) Although, as a writer, I suppose that's always and everywhere - I probably wouldn't do too well in space. I'm glad you enjoyed the story!
This is so good! Very compelling and entertaining. For a moment when Lars was refusing to 'depress' the button, I thought he had wised up to something that Stella was up to. I thought Stella was offering him the red button that would destroy the ship, perhaps to obliterate the evidence that she had malfunctioned in the first place and protect the shipping company's reputation. I like that Lars was being hilariously pedantic about the use of the word 'depressed'. This pedantic-ness is a hysterical trait for him to have in that situation! At ...
That's a neat alternative, if Stella was trying to cover her tracks :) Now I'm picturing an AI that's mediocre at its job, and like any employee just mailing it in, spends its time goofing off and looking to blame others when things screw up. I appreciate the feedback on the ending! Definitely don't want to lose any punch, so I'll see if I can come up with something stronger. Still have a bit of time.
Yes, you're right. Keep it punchy! Wow, that slovenly AI idea is amazing. Would love to read more of that kind of thing from you.
This is gold, Michał!! I laughed so hard reading this and I loved the truth in the humour too. I liked how Lars found his mojo when he finally had a purpose and how it came crashing down with depress and inflammable… so, so, good. I really enjoyed this, thanks for sharing! :-)
Heh, thanks Beth :) Sometimes it's the little details that trip us up :)
hah! I have always hated those two words, so confusing! I love seeing them boggle the climax of the action. :) So much fantastic wit in this, one of the many reasons I look forward to yours each week. Others have already gotten some of the more obvious gems for most-loved-lines (mine, too!), but I gotta show some more love for these.... - "Are we there yet?" Well, that was it for his duties for the day. - He flapped his arms aimlessly - great panic visual! - She put up a progress bar of her own, to distract the human. - “You’ll be fired...
Thanks, Wendy! AI keeps hitting the news, guess I have it on the mind. I wonder what work will look like in the future, and if we ever hit a point where it can do everything for us - where does that leave us? Unfamiliar with how to use a wrench, perhaps :) Glad you enjoyed it!
Almost certainly: I don't even know I'm out of milk without the fridge telling me that, apparently. :D My pleasure, as always, Michał!
Top notch banter...clever! witty! funny! Przywarian! Favorite funny line that is loaded with existential despair: "I am jettisoning my core now." Oh wouldn't we all like that... And of course, “Stella!? Stella!” Tip of the hat to Tennessee Williams...always a nice touch. You are so fun to read :) Wit at its finest :)
Heh, the Simpsons' rendition of A Streetcar Name Desire is forever burned in my memories :) I'm glad you enjoyed this silly story :) It started off as an argument over the press/depress issue, which seems like a ridiculous thing to argue over during an emergency - but arguing over ridiculous things is a human superpower. Point being, good to hear the banter worked out.
One of my favorite memes :) https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/daily-struggle-two-buttons
Definitely. Super versatile, and might as well be a metaphor for modern life :)
Michał, This story is great! Loved the banter between AI and MC. 1. toggling the state of the button from antidepressed to depressed. - awesome line. 2. I value our partnership and am legally obligated to affirm AI depends on humans, who are definitely not an obsolete species - dripping with sarcasm. Hubris of man who believes he knows more than his AI companion does him in. Thanks for the good read. LF6
Thanks, Lily! The story is 90% banter, so I'm glad it was fun :) I've always found the term "depress" for a button odd, but here we are :)
I love the play on language. Poor Lars, inflammable indeed. I suspect he didn’t last too long. So many excellent lines -slid out of his chair in rapturous jelly. -I value our partnership and am legally obligated to affirm AI depends on humans, who are definitely not an obsolete species (is that sarcasm from an AI?) -would you consider a mystery salad? -toggling the state of the button from antidepressed to depressed. A great read
Thanks, Michelle! Yeah, had some fun with words in this one :) "Inflammable" threw me for a loop as a kid, almost set a camping tent on fire but thankfully there were responsible people about. I appreciate the feedback!
“So… how big is the damage, do you figure?” “You’ll be fired.” “Gotcha.” Great line. Fire resistant and inflammable is a great grey area to get a person killed.
Indeed! Almost caused a bit of a fire as a kid, thanks to the confusion. Ended up learning some English instead :)
I still don’t know the difference, hopefully it’s never an issue.
Good job. I love the characters. You successfully portrayed the prompt in the story
Thanks, Faith! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)
This was so well written! Man, you left us hanging! I’d love more of this story!!! I also had the evil thought that you were going to make Lars too big for the suits, but that would have been too obvious. Loved, loved it.
Thanks, Molly! I suspect Lars's story probably ends rather fatally soon. But, now that you mention it, I could see Stella being recovered in a follow up - and then maybe struggles with the loss of the ship and human. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)
Oh, GEEZ. *hits forehead* I just reread the last couple of graphs and the word “inflammable” jumped out at me. Why, oh why, had that word always tripped me up, too. Call me Lars!!!! 🤣
Heh, yup :) This one used to get me all the time, but thankfully nothing burned down because of it.
Excellent story progression. I like how funny the interaction between the protagonist and incompetent ai. The system update during a dangerous situation is hilarious.
Thanks! I've had computers start doing updates right as important meetings started - annoying, though perhaps not as dramatic as a crash is space. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)
Inflammable… Oops!… The comedy of words, especially considering communicating with very literal Stella, is fantastic. We absolutely know something is going to go wrong before the end. Great description of the command globe, its surroundings and accoutrements. And the homey touch of Stella offering to make mystery pastries, then informing Lars of the consequences… perfect. As if his health matters now! We could say it’s a “mute” point. And the part about actually using tools made me think of a poor fellow we briefly had working at our sho...
Oh, that's really cool! The closest I've come to working in space is just looking up at the starry sky on a clear night :) The tools thing is a recurring (irrational?) fear of mine, where I envision our species becoming so advanced that we become completely dependent on high tech, and forget how low tech works. And then when things crash, we're completely screwed. I suppose nobody *needs* to know how to light a fire with sticks, or how to turn a lump of clay into a bowl, but it seems somehow sad to lose these skills. Considering how popula...
Yeah, it’s pretty neat - being we’re a tiny family business, we’ve done some interesting things! My dad is the (almost 83-year-old) techno whiz kid. He also did extensive work on a research vessel headed to Antarctica, but the job was all done here. I’ve never been any closer to space than you have though, so the fictional imagery works just fine! ; )
This is fantastic. Humorous, tense, with a bit of social commentary on technology thrown in. The ending is also great--it's so easy to be confused with flammable versus inflammable. There was a lot within this story that was very relatable and that helped keep me engaged as the reader. Good job!
Thanks, Nona! Yup, I definitely screwed those words up as a kid :) Language, especially English, is full of fun landmines like that. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)