I’m never sure which sensation I’m aware of first. My consciousness is slowly returning, and my head is still buzzing with the sedative they use to keep our bodies in stasis.
There’s the feeling of the viscous liquid purging from my lungs, designed to provide oxygen and keep the lung tissue healthy. Imagine the deepest, wettest cough you’ve ever had, then multiply it times a hundred.
The feel of the synthetic adrenaline courses through my muscles. A tingling sensation, spreading through every vein and capillary. It wakes the muscles up and repairs the damage and atrophy done by the status.
There are impossibly bright shapes in my vision, blurry and non-distinct. Slowly coming into focus as my eyes get re-acclimated to normal use.
Twenty-seven times, the central AI of the interstellar ship Columbia has re-animated me. Once a month. To handle the things that require human intervention. That’s the job of the ship’s captain. My job.
The Columbia is one of two interstellar ships bound for Proxima Centauri, the nearest habitable planet. Together with the Atlantis, one month behind us, our mission is to establish a base for eventual human colonization. My husband, Erik, is the captain of the Atlantis.
But there’s something unusual about my re-animation this time. A loud blaring noise. Typically, the only sound during re-animation is the splashing of status liquid. This is entirely different.
When the liquid has drained from my chamber, and the glass door slides away, the blaring gets louder. It’s the general alarm. Something is wrong.
“AI, what’s—” A fit of coughing interrupts me, as I expel the remaining liquid from my lungs. “What’s going on?”
A smooth male voice fills the stasis bay, coming from no discernible direction. “I’m sorry for waking you early, James. There’s an urgent matter that requires your attention.”
“Silence the alarm. What’s the emergency?”
The blaring stops.
“My sensors have detected a previously uncharted comet on a direct collision course for the Columbia.”
My pulse quickens.
“Time to comet impact?”
“Two hours and fourteen minutes.” AI says it with cold detachment. Two hours and fourteen minutes to its own destruction, and the deaths of myself and my forty-nine crew-mates. I’ll need that same cold detachment to get through this. My crew is counting on me.
“How did long range sensors miss this?” I ask.
“Our proximity to black hole Gaia BD-1 is creating interference.”
“What are our options?”
“The normal course of action is a controlled deceleration using the ion drive. Because of the comet’s close proximity, that will leave a sixty-one percent chance of the Colombia hitting the debris field.”
The Columbia is equipped with shields to absorb minor impacts of objects up to a meter in diameter. But the debris field of a comet would tear the ship apart.
I rub my temples. “I don’t like those odds. Any other options?”
“A high-g course correction using the RCS rockets.”
The very mention of such a risky operation sends a chill through my body. Unlike the ion drive with it’s nearly limitless power source, the RCS rockets work on conventional fuel. And with our ship moving at half the speed of light, course corrections are dangerous. “Are you sure that’s that’s the only other option, AI?”
“Won’t that burn a lot of fuel?”
“Correct. We will use forty percent of our reserves.”
That won’t leave much margin for error. But it’s better than a chance of an outright collision.
“Proceed with preparations for the high-g maneuver. How soon can we do it?”
Good. That gives me enough time to send Erik a message.
The Columbia and Atlantis are sufficiently far apart that transmissions take around two weeks to reach each other. So Erik and I are in a two-week delayed long-distance relationship. We send messages to each other every time we can.
The Global Space Alliance was excited that Erik and I—both accomplished astronauts and a married couple—volunteered for this mission. Our particular dynamic is very desirable for the role of captain, which is basically the ships caretaker. Over the course of our six-year journey, part of our job is to provide companionship and support to each other. And that’s just a built in part of our relationship. Without that, a person can go mad in the vast emptiness of space.
The stasis bay is massive, filled with fifty chambers lined up in rows of ten. Next to them is a command station, where I can access all the central computer functions. After drying off, I put on a jumpsuit, then float over to it. My muscles are on the road to recovery, but it still takes effort to get there, even in zero-g.
I pull up comms on the holo-screen. There’s an unread message from Erik, sent three weeks ago. Nervous anticipation floods over me. I’m always excited to hear from him, but there’s always a little trepidation. Will everything be okay? Will the isolation and boredom change how he feels about me? It’s stupid to even entertain such thoughts. I know Erik better than that. But that doesn’t stop me from worrying.
The feed is rough. Lots of distortion. Even so, the image of Erik hovers before me.
“Hi, sweetheart. I think we’ve got some interference—skreeek—nearby solar storm. This message will have—shraaach—quick. First of all, I love you.”
I never tire of him saying that. It’s something I desperately need to hear in every message. Time alone in space can really mess with your mind.
He continues. “Second order of business, bishop to queen’s knight four.”
Very clever. I thought he might make that move. I’ll have to think a bit before I respond.
“I’m guessing you knew I’d make that move,” Erik says, and I laugh. He knows me so well. “I’m probably heading right into a trap. Anyway, everything is going smoothly over at Atlantis.”
Erik continues with some routine ship status reports. Then his face gets solemn. “I really miss you. It’s hard to believe it’s going to—skreeek—four years before we see each other face to face. But at—shheeek—time in stasis goes by quickly. Just fifty-two more re-animations. We should have our chess game finished by then. Anyway, as always, I love you and miss you.”
The message stops.
Of course I have to reply. If something goes wrong with the comet, I need him to know that I love him. But if I make the message too long or sentimental, he’ll see right through it and be sick with worry. It’s a delicate balance.
I start my recording. “Hello Erik. I love you too. My stasis ended early because we have to do a maneuver to avoid a comet. Pretty routine. Everything will be fine. Good chess move, by the way. I’ll send you my next move soon.” I let out a sigh, despite wanting to project confidence. “I have to go now. I’ll send you a longer message as soon as our maneuver is done. I love you very much.”
“Commencing high-g course correction in ten seconds.” AI’s voice is calm and level as always.
I’m on the bridge, strapped into a grava-chair designed to minimize the impact of massive g-forces on the human body. It doesn’t make all the discomfort go away, but it keeps me from becoming a pancake on the side of the hull.
AI completes the countdown. “Three, two, one. Firing rockets.”
There’s a guttural sound of thrusters booming throughout the entire ship. The skin on my face plasters backward, and there’s a heavy weight on my chest. My arms and legs feel like lead.
Then, there’s a loud sound of groaning metal, followed by a concussive boom that sends deep vibrations through the hull.
What the fuck was that?
My entire body, which was being pushed back and to the left, suddenly lurches right. The grava-chair turns to absorb most of the impact, but my head still snaps, and I feel a massive headache coming on. A few moments later, the thrusters stop.
“What in the hell happened, AI?”
“There was a malfunction in RCS-rocket four during the burn.”
“Was the maneuver successful?”
Processing? AI is capable of septillions of calculations per second. This is the longest I’ve had to wait on any response. Ever.
“Processing,” AI repeats.
Finally, AI talks in its calm, detached voice. “From the standpoint of avoiding the comet, the maneuver was successful.”
I don’t like the sound of that. “From what standpoint was it unsuccessful?”
“The failed RCS-rocket has altered our trajectory in a way I did not anticipate. We will need to make minor corrections to our velocity over the next eight months.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad. Will it impact our arrival time?”
“That—” Long pregnant pause. “—is complicated.”
“Enlighten me.” I’m getting agitated by the evasion. And a touch nervous. AI just doesn’t do this.
“The new course brings us very close to the event-horizon of the nearby black hole. This is advantageous, as we can sling-shot past it. We will use the increase in velocity to speed up our journey, arriving nearly six months ahead of schedule—” Another pause. “—from our perspective.”
From our perspective?
I dredge through the back of my brain to remember the specifics of special relativity and time dilation. Our half-light speed is only enough to dilate time about twenty percent. So while our journey will take us six and a half years, the people back on Earth will experience eight years.
But extreme gravity is another matter entirely. Getting close to the event horizon of a black hole can cause a much more severe time dilation.
I ask the question I’m not sure I want the answer to. “How much more time will have passed from the perspective of the Atlantis?”
AI pauses. “Eighty-six years.”
The news hits me like a punch to the gut. My chest tightens, and my head feels dizzy.
“I realize this may be upsetting to you,” AI says. “I want to offer my services as a counselor to help you through this.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? You’re telling me I’ll likely never see my husband again, and you think this might be upsetting to me?”
I punch the console so hard it dents the metal. Small blood bubbles form on my hand and drift throughout the cabin. I push my fist into my suit to stop the bleeding.
“Alternatives,” I say, taking a deep breath to calm myself. “Can we do another course correction?”
“A course correction is possible if we do it within the next hour. But we will use up ninety-four percent of our reserve fuel. That will not leave enough fuel to maintain all the ship’s systems.”
“We can shut down everything unnecessary,” I say. “Run as lean as possible.”
“The stasis pods are the primary consumer of energy. We will have enough fuel to power ten out of the fifty pods.”
No. That can’t be right.
I’m finding it hard to breathe, and my head feels light. My breaths become shallow and I clutch at my chest.
“James, I’m detecting a sudden drop in your blood-oxygen levels,” AI says. “You appear to be hyperventilating. Please put your head between your knees and breathe slowly and deeply.”
I do as AI suggested. Gradually, I’m able to catch my breath again.
“AI, Columbia is the lead ship in this colonization mission. What happens to Atlantis if we don’t arrive before them?”
“The two ships have many redundant systems. But Atlantis will have to make extensive modifications to their equipment to survive.”
“So, what are the odds that Atlantis succeeds without us?”
“There is a wide variance in all potential outcomes, but the average is a sixty-four percent chance of success.”
I close my eyes and pinch the bridge of my nose. My brain is having a hard time processing all the news. When I’ve had a moment to think, I speak slowly and but with a shaky voice. “So just to be clear, if we do nothing, I’ll never see my husband again, and there’s a good chance their mission fails. If we do a course correction, I have to choose forty crew members to die.”
“That is an accurate assessment.”
It’s an impossible choice. There are too many things to consider. Too much uncertainty. Too many what ifs. As the captain of the ship, I have to be ready to make hard decisions about the lives of my crew. But not like this. And right in the middle of all of that is the love for my husband. I’d be a fool to think that it doesn’t cloud my decisions.
“AI, bring up a list of Columbia crew members. Sorted by job criticality.”
I’m sick to my stomach as I look at the list. I know each of these people well. Back on Earth, we spent an entire year together training. Near the bottom of the list is Sophie Adams, our horticulture expert. She has a positive attitude and a passion for her job.
As I scan upward, I see Frank Hubbard, a mechanics expert who can fix anything. He’s a big grump and the cynic in our group, but I learned to appreciate his shrewd pragmatism and his dry sense of humor.
How can I lose any of these people? How can I possibly be asked to choose? My hands tremble as I make adjustments to the list. Decisions no human should have to make, but one which cannot be left to a sorting algorithm alone.
“AI, save that list. This is the crew priority. In scenario one, we make the course correction and we use this list when making decisions about energy consumption.”
“Understood,” AI says in a level tone.
“On our present course toward the black hole, how long will I be able to send transmissions?”
“In approximately two weeks, the gravity well of the black hole will be strong enough that our transmissions will no longer escape it.”
“AI, in scenario two, we keep our course steady, and you transmit the following message to Atlantis, along with a full dump of our data banks.”
My throat feels thick as I fight to hold back the tears. I begin the recording. “Erik. I love you. I will always love you. But this will be the last transmission you receive from me. Our course correction failed. As a result, we are doing a sling-shot around a black hole. From your time perspective, we will not reach Proxima Centauri for eighty-six years.”
There’s no holding back the tears now. They turn into little orbs and float in different directions. “I know you won’t want to hear this. We made a lot of plans together on our new home. But you’ll need to move on. I give you permission to love again. Knowing you can find some happiness will be the one thing that keeps me going. I know it will be hard, but please do this for me. I’ll love you forever.”
I end the transmission. There’s so much more in my heart that I want to express, but I’m not sure how to do it with words. Saying anything more would feel like a hollow representation of my feelings.
I sit there for a moment to regain my composure. I take deep breaths and let my mind clear.
“AI, how closely can you simulate a perfect coin flip?”
“Using quantum randomness, I can simulate a fifty-fifty split precisely.”
“Good. Flip a coin. If it’s heads, execute scenario one. Tails do scenario two. Make this command irreversible. Do you understand?”
“Execute the coin flip.”
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I really loved this story Paul. Initially I was impressed with the amount of research and knowledge that must have went into this compact little story, but by the end I loved the setup of this unthinkable dilemma. Bravo, hope this story gets some love.
Thanks so much. Glad you liked it. Some of this was personal knowledge, some was wikipedia research and a bit was made up. Most of this is plausible, with the major exception being that the closest known black hole to earth is 1,600 light years away. But I followed the old writing adage of "write what you know, but if you don't know, at least sound convincing." :) Plus I figured there *might* be closer black holes that we just don't know about. So that's what I'm going with. Glad you liked the final dilemma too!
Hey you had me convinced!
Wow! This was such an exciting read and a well-written story; I'm at the metaphorical 'edge of my seat'. I appreciate you ending your story at the coin flip. I don't know which decision I prefer to happen, but I'm so glad I don't have to make that decision haha. Awesome story, and good luck with the contest!
Thank you so much! Glad you liked it. Yeah, I really wanted to set up a true Sophie's Choice and leave it up to the reader to contemplate which they would choose.