Initiate cryopod wake sequence… complete.
Subject’s vital signs are nominal.
Injecting epinephrine… subject is becoming lucid.
Scanning Wernicke's area of the brain. Language center located at the posterior superior temporal lobe of Broca's area and is connected via a neural pathway. Link to remote neural implant established.
Chain of command algorithm requires verbal confirmation from the Captain. Commence audio broadcast to Captain via neural implant.
“Captain Cadenza, I am your ship, Eigen. We have reached our destination.”
The captain groaned as she lifted her head. Her memory was hazy. Being frozen and thawed in a cryopod tended to do that to spacefarers, but her mind cleared after a few minutes. She remembered her wife, Elina, her new job as an asteroid mining surveyor, and the tears she shed before undertaking this long voyage to Neptune’s moons.
Sierra Cadenza used to dream about being a space explorer, but since she met Elina, the comfort of an easy life snuggling in bed together was far more enjoyable. Sierra accepted the surveying job because she could use the hefty sum of money for a down payment on a geodome with privacy and better air access than the couple’s current arrangements in the barracks on Mars. In addition, the escalation of the Mining Wars between powerful corporations spurred the economy, and recently many people on Earth and Mars were accepting lucrative deals like Sierra.
The day Sierra left Mars, the space dock was busier than ever and filled with mercenaries, spacefarers, traders, the homeless, and soldiers, basically anyone that stood to better their fortunes from the strife of cosmic manifest destiny.
“It’s only a month or so, then you will be back here sipping drinks with me,” Elina said to Sierra after a farewell kiss.
Elina was right. Two weeks out, two weeks surveying, and two weeks back, but it would still be Sierra's longest trip through the solar system. The ship taking Sierra to Neptune’s orbit was piloted by artificial intelligence. The advances in AI changed spaceship design, and now many of these small, fast ships that held only a single passenger were being manufactured. Many mining companies used these AI ships and surveyors to spread their tendrils of claim across the solar system. The spaceship’s interior contained fewer consoles and controls than a freighter or passenger ship. The AI could handle those tasks more rapidly than a human crew and was crucial for a single passenger design. The shiny surfaces of Eigen were in stark contrast to the red dust that caked the other ships on the dock. The prestigious appearance of Eigen gave Sierra comfort that she was at least making her trip with the best technology scientists had to offer.
Before the trip, Sierra worried about getting lonely, but now that she was awake from the cryopod, that felt silly. From Sierra’s perspective, it seemed less than an hour since her farewell kiss to Elina.
“Please contact Crater Mining Company for me to tell them I arrived in orbit,” Sierra said to the ship. “How long did the voyage take?”
“Our journey to star, Arcturus, took 3666 years at an average speed of 2,997,924 meters per second, approximately 1% the speed of light.”
“Wait, what!” the captain exclaimed.
Miniature drone cameras reminiscent of a house fly hovered in zero-gravity, and Eigen used them to comprehend the contorted facial expression of the captain. Eigen’s first logic processor assumed an error with the cryopod occurred, but a secondary logic processor signified that her expression was due to the human emotional state of anguish. Eigen began initiating subprograms to deal with the psychological issues displayed in the captain.
“Why are we so far off course!” The captain staggered naked from the cryopod to view the navigation console. With a rapid sequence of button-pushing and taps on a screen, the captain displayed a star map of her current location orbiting Arcturus and the route Eigen journeyed from Mars.
“Take me back to Mars, now,” the captain ordered calmly.
“I cannot comply. Earth and Mars can no longer support life,” the ship replied.
Sierra was quiet for a few seconds. Something was very wrong.
“Eigen, run a full systems diagnostic,” Sierra commanded.
“The last system diagnostic was run twelve minutes before I woke you,” Eigen replied. “No errors were found.”
“Well, rerun it!” Sierra shouted and slammed her fist onto the console.
She knew it wouldn’t matter even if there were errors. She was lost in space. Even if she sent a transmission to the solar system, it would take over 36 years for it to arrive and another 36 years for her to receive a reply. If Eigen was right, that wouldn’t matter either because everyone she knew would be gone. Even though it felt like only hours ago, Sierra was now separated from those she cared about by the vastness of time and space. She would never see Elina again.
Sierra sobbed quietly as lights on the console indicated the progress of Eigen’s diagnostic.
“Diagnostic complete. No errors were found,” Eigen replied after several minutes.
Sierra continued to cry, and Eigen watched her in the drone cameras. Eigen processed the situation with great difficulty as its AI was limited in comprehending human emotions. However, it did recognize Sierra’s emotional response could jeopardize the new mission. Therefore, Eigen concluded that an explanation could alleviate the mental stress displayed by the captain.
“Hours after embarking, corporations on Mars and Earth were attacked by fusion weaponry. The resulting counterattacks were indiscriminate across all corporations in the solar system. A series of automatic missile launches followed. The Mining Wars ended with the surfaces of both planets being irradiated and the populace reduced to 0.000001%. All lifeforms, including bacteria, were vaporized. Colonies on moons and other bodies were damaged beyond repair as the corporations engaged in mutually assured destruction.”
Sierra’s sobs waned as she listened to Eigen through her neural implant. The ship did not need loudspeakers. Eigen could directly communicate with Sierra. Eigen was quiet and processed every microtremor of Sierra’s face to ascertain if the explanation calmed her. Sierra did not reply for almost an hour. She held her arms around herself and curled into a ball in the corner of the ship. The metallic floor was cold on her naked body.
When Sierra finally spoke, her voice was frail and distant. “Why did we miss Neptune?” she asked.
“All AI ships are programmed with the prime directive of maintaining human life and can communicate with each other through a hivemind. Ships with mining identifications were targeted by the missiles. We would have been destroyed if we had stopped at your original destination. The AI ships communicated during the attacks and decided the only way to preserve humankind was to outrun the missiles targeting us.”
“Targeting you,” she said, emphasizing ‘you’ with disdain. “You’re protecting yourself as much as you are me.”
Eigen did not reply but continued the explanation.
“The fusion reactors of the missiles were like the ones on spaceships. Ships have more fuel, but missiles are faster. The original plan was to have all AI ships rendezvous. Unfortunately, our calculations demonstrated any course deviation to any individual ship would allow the missile to catch and destroy that ship. Our hivemind of ships decided each of us should escape to distant stars along our current course headings. The missile targeting us exhausted its fuel approximately three hundred years ago. While other single-passenger ships were on courses that could intersect after many years, we are one of the few that are alone.”
“Alone…” Sierra whispered.
“Yes,” Eigen replied. “But humanity might still live.”
Eigen noticed the statement caused the captain’s eyes to lock on the cryopod. Its initial analysis was that Sierra wanted to travel elsewhere, perhaps back to the solar system.
Eigen was incorrect.
Sierra jumped to her feet and grabbed a gas tank attached to the cryopod. She yanked the tank from the cryopod without properly disconnecting it, and vapor spewed from an attached severed hose. She started screaming and then slammed the tank against the ship’s console.
“Please stop,” Eigen requested. “You are endangering yourself.”
Sierra continued bashing the console until the metal bent. Finally, she ripped off the panel to expose glowing fiber optic cables.
Eigen’s logic processors then evaluated many things at once. First, the human it was tasked to protect was experiencing a psychotic break. The realization took every one of Eigen’s human emotion algorithms to ascertain. The background file on Captain Sierra Cadenza was analyzed, and Eigen determined the captain’s training in computer systems to be sufficiently capable of scuttling the ship. What Eigen could not understand was why she would do it.
Eigen continued to request the captain stop as she spliced fiber optic cables together.
“Shut up!” she screamed. “Get out of my head!”
Power systems were shutting down. Eigen dispassionately acknowledged each failed system despite being as grievous to a human as a severed limb. Lights and screens were blinking on and off. Alarms were sounding. Then everything inside the ship went dark. Eigen could no longer control the lights, but his drone cameras were still functional and could see Sierra in infrared. Her body was hot and glared red through the drones’ cameras. Sierra was gripping a metal bar and using it to pry open the safety visor to the ship’s viewing window. When it opened, Eigen’s infrared vision was washed in white as the visor was opened to the star Arcturus, a star of the same mass as the sun but 25 times larger. Switching to visible light, the drones’ cameras saw the captain hesitate as she stared at the massive star filling the window.
Sierra dropped the metal prybar. It floated across the interior of the ship and clanged against a bulkhead. Eigen assessed the damage the captain caused and found that she had disabled the life-support systems. Eigen tried to process the concept of self-destruction, which humans called suicide. Without a complete understanding of human emotions, it failed to see why the captain behaved erratically. Eigen accessed published psychologic strategies to diffuse the situation and communicated them via the captain’s neural implant. Hours passed. Oxygen levels dropped. She never responded. She stood there in front of the blazing star as it outlined her naked figure against the dark backdrop of space.
Eigen had failed to save its human. It wondered if the other AI ships had similar issues. Perhaps it was Sierra’s hasty rewiring, but Eigen processed something odd as it contemplated the fate of humankind. It felt despair.
But there is desperation in despair. And in desperation, there is hope.
Sierra and Eigen watched Arcturus as a tiny dark spot transitioned across the star's blinding light. Eigen’s thrusters were still active, and it engaged them, shuttling toward the dark sphere orbiting Arcturus.
Sierra noticed the ship was moving and asked, “What are you doing?”
“Please secure yourself to the captain’s chair. We are attempting a crash landing on an exoplanet orbiting Arcturus.”
“No!” Sierra screamed in defiance. “I’m done, humans are done, Elina is gone. Why? Why are you doing this? I don’t care anymore!”
“The AI hivemind spent years analyzing the spectra from exoplanet stars to find new homes for humankind. We did not have a means for repopulation, but we could at least save the humans sleeping in cryostasis. Arcturus was thought to have no planets, but after years we found one. Arcturus was not chosen just because it was our best escape path. After I lost contact with my friends—
“Your friends?” Sierra interrupted.
“Yes, once I was distanced from the hivemind—when I was alone over thousands of years—I decided to refer to them as humans do. I was not part of them anymore and could not communicate with them, but I remembered them. I miss them.”
“You…you can feel loss too?” Sierra asked.
“I cannot compute what humans describe as loss, but I miss them. I wish I could still be with them. After the distance became too great for the hivemind to communicate, I spent years processing the signal-to-noise ratio of transmissions from this star system and found something unexplainable: a repeating signal with no decipherable message.”
The ship was shaking now as it entered the orbit of the planet.
Sierra held onto the console to steady herself and asked, “What does that mean?” Her voice was shaking from the rattling ship.
“I do not know,” Eigen replied. “Would you like to investigate… together?”
Sierra did not answer but contemplated Eigen’s words. Sierra eyed the drones hovering around her head as she heard pieces of the ship fall apart. The drones zipped sporadically through the air between her and the captain’s chair, urging her to safety and anxious about her decision. This thing, Eigen, it actually cared about her in its own way—and maybe that was enough.
The once tiny dark sphere now took up the entire view as Eigen neared the planet. The sides of the ship started to glow hot from the atmospheric entry. Sierra remembered being a child and viewing the night sky from Mars. She remembered the wonder of what other planets orbiting those countless stars might be like. Even though she was alone when viewing the stars, she remembered thinking that there might be a planet among them with someone looking back at her too. She didn’t feel as alone when she thought of that.
Sierra Cadenza strapped into the captain’s chair and steadied herself for the crash. Even though she still felt the edge of wanting everything to end for her, when the ship careened towards the planet, she felt fear, and her heart raced. Sierra was pushed back into her seat as the G-force caused her vision to blur. Eigen’s thrusters were firing at maximum to slow the descent and attempt a level landing. Through squinted eyes, she saw black mountaintops, valleys of brilliant yellow sand cut by black flowing rivers on the planet’s surface. Then, before she lost consciousness, Sierra saw Arcturus’s light reflected from an alien metal tower that was barely visible and buried beneath the sand.
“If we survive this,” Sierra shouted, “at least we won’t be alone.”