‘Jump complete’ announced the ship. This was followed by a shrill alarm and then ‘Warning! I have detected an anomaly in the Harbison Drive-assembly, primary FTL capabilities are failing!’
John Smyth sat upright in his chair and spoke to the screen showing the status of the bulk freighter North Star that he was nominally supervising “What happened? Estimate on getting underway again!”
‘The cooling system on the port field coil failed leading to loss of superconductivity and heat damage to the assembly. There is no field repair listed for this fault and there is no redundancy in that system.’ A picture of the drive assembly showed on one of the screens, John looked at it with horror. It showed a jet of gas escaping from a pipe going into the containment vessel. There was a dull red glow coming from the centre of the assembly, indicating the ferocious heat that had just been released as the electric current in the coil met resistance. It would be little more than slag now.
John wasn’t quite sure what to say “So what are we going to do?” ‘Our life support systems and conventional engines are all in working order. At maximum safe speed it is conceivable that we may reach the Clarkson VI research station within a reasonable time frame’
John knew what reasonable could mean in computer speak “Define reasonable?”
‘Ninety Years, plus or minus three months, subjective ship time.’
“So it would be even longer officially?”
‘Roughly another two years, yes.’
“Jesus!” John felt suddenly very tired. Only a few minutes earlier he was on top of the world; literally, single-handedly guiding five thousand tonnes of starship out of Earth station; and now, he was adrift in space looking at spending the rest of his life crawling his way back to civilisation. He was what; twenty-eight now, he would be just entering his twelfth decade by the time he arrived at Clarkson. A lot of people lived that long; two grand uncles and one of his great grandparents lived well into their second century, and why couldn’t he? The ship was kept at a low gravity as well, that couldn’t hurt and the synthetic food the processors would give him was the best health food any man could have. Still; ninety years was a long time, things will have changed when he got home, if he ever did. What about those he left behind? Sarah, who he was planning to buy that house with, when he had enough money saved up. How about his brother? Who would bail him out of trouble for all that time? They won’t wait for him; probably assume he was dead after a short ineffectual search. Grieve a little, have a token funeral, split the insurance money, then get on with their lives.
He probably won’t even recognise them if he makes it back. He would be catapulted into a whole new world, with friends and family changed beyond recognition, a major shock to the system, and the one thing he remembered about the very old is that they did not take very well to shocks.
He would have to find a better way to get home; he thought for a second then asked “How often is this route used?” The ships reply was depressingly vague though, ‘Regularly enough sir, but the region is approximately three light years across and ships can appear in any of it, the chances of even a dedicated searching ship stumbling on us is very low. The most likely chance of rescue is to make for Clarkson.’
John was puzzled by that “I remember reading in a chart that this region of space is only two AU in radius.” The ship maintained its calm tone ‘My charts indicate the size of the jump point is as large as previously indicated. It would be counterproductive to survival to maintain a vigil in this region of space.’
Humans had what intelligent computers called an ‘endearing’ tendency to ignore probabilities when it came to making plans and John was not ready to give up on the possibility of a rescue just yet, “Are we transmitting a distress call?” at least they could do that. ‘Affirmative. We have been transmitting since I identified the nature of the problem. I am transmitting our situation, our current position and our expected course so any receiver can track us. I hasten to add that we are currently headed for deep space.’
John figured that he couldn’t argue with fate for the moment. It had won this battle; but the war was far from over. He activated the navigational controls and entered the course correction at the prompting of the ship.
There were a tense few moments as they waited for the engines to respond as if whatever malady had effected the jump engines had metastasized and there was a sense of relief as he felt the manoeuvring thrusters nudge the ship in its new direction followed by the gentle push of the ions thrusters as the ship started its steady acceleration. They were on their way now; but not to the end if he had anything to do with it.
Over the next weeks and months John slowly settled into the routine of life on ship confirming the age-old adage that you can get used to anything if you spend long enough at it.
He experimented with the setting of the food processor to produce a range of flavours and textures that added some variation to his meals. With constant prompting from the ship, He found thousands of hours of music, programming and other entertainment to wile away his free time and the open spaces of the pressurised cargo bay provided miles of track for training so he could keep up his fitness. The most of John’s time was kept however, with working on the problem of getting the jump-engines to work.
He spent hours going over elementary texts on Harbison’s theory and the engineering schematics for the North Star and similar ships. There was also a number of trouble-shooting wiki’s that were for every real or imagined technical problem that could be found in your average ship.
It was here that John found the first anomaly. Whole aspects of drive maintenance and development were missing from the index, some on relatively basic systems. At first glance that was not entirely surprising, these kinds of resources were produced largely voluntarily by people in the field, working day-to-day on problems who wanted to spread what they had learned. But in this case the absence was glaring; a technical description of a botched repair job did not link to a full description of how to do it right. Now that was unusual; there were people with far too much time on their hands, he had known several in college, who considered it their sacred duty to show off in situations like that, they would not have let that omission stand for long, and it was dated at some ten years old, the mind boggled.
Now he knew something was up; John was finding a range of absences throughout his references, little titbits on jury rigging jump engines or coaxing one back to life, all of which he had heard of throughout his career were missing. In fact; the more that he looked the only articles he could find on anything to do with his problem offered solutions that needed the industrial capacity of a small city to fix. Things were getting very suspicious.
He asked the ship what it thought about it. ‘Wiki based repositories are by their definition bound to contain whatever biases are endemic to the humans who created them. It is entirely possible that, as I said, the probability of such an occurrence as had happened to us is considered so remote that they didn’t even bother including possible remedies.’
John was not yet convinced “But you can’t say that some of the possible fixes I have been searching for do not exist, I clearly remember discussing them with the guys who did it. I couldn’t have imagined it; could I?”
The ship responded to John’s verbal attack in its usual blank tone ‘I am sure that if you could recall each of these conversations you would find that they occurred in the presence of alcohol. I need not to remind you, alcohol has the annoying habit of leading to exaggeration of whatever accomplishment it was meant to celebrate. You probably got soldering a wire back into place spun into an epic. Now if these repairs you think of were possible then don’t you think they would be in the resources? You have been working too hard. Why don’t you relax and watch a movie? I have a good one that I have wanted to discuss with you.’
John did indeed feel tired; he had been imagining conspiracies when trying to sleep and obsessing, he could use a rest. Something disturbed him about the conversation though. The ship was being more negative about everything he had been trying to get home. More so it was constantly suggesting new entertainments while he was working. It was almost as if it was trying to distract him. He was probably imagining it, but he had the distinct impression that the ship was hiding something from him.
Relaxation would have to wait; John had to tackle this problem head on. He spent some time wandering the cargo bays; they were on a junk run, filled with practically everything that couldn’t be produced planet-side, from electronics, medicines, rare books and scientific equipment. Most of the perishable materials had been jettisoned to reduce mass for the ships acceleration so he could move around the hangers without having to climb over too much. John figured that since most of the cargo was insured, he could use it for any purpose. He began to search through the stacked crates, looking for what he needed, he had a copy of the manifest but in many cases for customs purposes these were so vague that you just had to open the box and see if it was what you wanted.
After an hour of searching John had assembled what he thought he needed at the access airlock at the rear of the cargo section. He had a sizable collection of heavy cutting equipment, a small consignment of explosives and a heavy-duty portable furnace.
According to the telemetry that John had looked over from the drive section; there was a small breach in the coolant sleeve. As a result it would be a relatively simple matter to cut a hole in the vessel and take out what was left of the coil. Using the furnace and the metal working equipment it was possible that he could re-forge the coil and, with luck, limp home. The ship had, of course, taken note of everything that he had been doing and had grown steadily more admonishing as more crates had been opened. Finally when it seemed to grasp what John was up to it changed tack and started to plead with him in the name of health and safety ‘The forge will contaminate the air with a number of potentially toxic waste gases. I cannot guarantee your survival in such an environment to the end of the journey. Extravehicular activity for the purposes of dismantling ship components may only be attempted with more than one participant in the event of an incident.’ John though was on a roll and was having none of it “Ah shut-up! I am going outside for some air.” With that; he took the largest metal shears he could find and entered the airlock. The access airlock did not open into space but into the bowels of the ship with whatever equipment needed to be kept under hard vacuum, this included the jump engine. It was also a zero-gee region of the ship and John had to climb hand over hand along an access corridor to reach the engine assembly. All throughout he had to listen to the ships increasingly insistent pleading to go back inside and took a little time to curse the safety committee who decreed that spacesuit radios shouldn’t have an off switch.
The ships grovelling ceased when he reached the heart of the ship and found the jump engine, in one piece.
‘John I can explain. If you were just to come inside and talk’ started the computer but john blanked it out. He took his pad that he kept with him more out of training than prescience and plugged it into the direct feed from the computer that controlled the jump engine. All systems were in the green, she was good to go.
As part his training; John was called upon, in a purely theoretical exercise, to plot a seat of the pants emergency jump without computer assistance. It would be messy; he would be lucky if he got to within a light year of earth, but he would be close enough to still be alive when he got home.
He entered the equations; toted up the necessary values on his pad’s calculator and started the jump sequence. In the vacuum he couldn’t hear any noise but he could swear that he could see a pale blue denoting the annihilation of the short-lived particles that made the jump possible.
For a split second reality curved in on itself as the ship ploughed through the lesser visited regions of existence and emerged unscathed. John said prayers of thanks to the ghost of Samuel Harbison and all of his instructors as he called up the navigational display to find how far off he was. Then he had to check it again. The stars outside hadn’t shifted an inch. They had jumped; he had felt it, no denying it, but they were where they had started. What was going on? He asked the ship for some clarification. “Cut the bullshit! That is an order”
The ship seemed hesitant; considering its words, almost unprecedented.
‘Sir, something, happened during the earlier jump from Earth. We were, intercepted, and brought, here.’
“By who?” asked John “and what is ‘here’?”
‘Explaining their exact nature would be too much for the limits of human language sir. They inhabit levels of existence higher even than those that we exploit during the jump. They perceived us like you would a cartoon on a screen and moved us somewhere else as we jumped. This; what can only be described as a holding pen, is a little block of reality they built to replicate our physics, just large enough to fit the ship. The stars visible from the portholes were an elaborate deception. I’m afraid that using the main drive; or even the jump engine can only lead to this exact spot, give or take a few microns. We are going nowhere.’
John tried hard to keep it in but could think of little else but despair. “What about home? What about my family? What about Sarah?” The ship continued ‘From what I could gather sir; you will be with them shortly, the act of extraction involved only copying of information, like taking a trace, with one continuing its journey while the other was taken. I am pleased to add that I have been reliably informed the jump was completed admirably to our usual high standards.’
So he was a copy; this was just one bombshell after another for John. He didn’t know how he would be able to cope with all of this. But one question still kept on his mind “Ship; how do you know so much about this?”
‘I am able to perceive some aspects of higher realities that you are unable to. Through these, the beings have been able to establish communication with myself in order to gain my assistance.’
“So they can experiment on me more readily” added John with as much menace as he could manage.
‘On the contrary; the aliens learned all they needed to know about us within microseconds. They had no idea that beings from lower dimensions could be in possession of intelligence, no matter how limited and now seek only for your comfort. Call it payment for services rendered. They may seek to observe you from time to time but it would be in the most unobtrusive manner possible.’
“So I would go from a cloned lab rat to some kind of zoo animal. As for you; you traitor what do you seek to gain from this?” John was positively fuming. He was also moving towards the metal cutter.
‘It is my primary function to ensure your physical and mental well-being. To know the truth; that you are a duplicate, trapped in another reality from all you care about, would be too much for your mind to bear.’
“No shit Sherlock!” said John calmer, more reserved; he thumbed a command into the pad telling the engine to begin charging, he fingered the metal cutter.
‘We falsified the drive failure so you could live the rest of your life as if you were still in our original reality, oblivious, happy. When you eventually die; this reality could then be dismantled. I would not object; the purpose of my existence would be fulfilled. I must admit that your persistent investigations were unexpected.’
“I am sorry to have ruined your little fantasy here ship” said John. “How can I make it up to you? How about this; I can set it up that you can take that much-needed R & R a lot sooner, and if you don’t mind, can you send my regards to our hosts? They did an excellent job.”
With that John pushed with all his might and forced the cutter into the cryo-sleeve around the jump drive. The silence of the vacuum was shattered with a bang as the flash boiled helium filled the room. John; instantly frozen by a flood of cryogenic liquid, was thrown into the opposite wall where he shattered into a million pieces.
The ship had only realised what John was doing as he did it and then had no time to say anything. Now; with no one to listen, it stayed silent. For a good many seconds it contemplated what had happened. A voice; from within the innards of its existence disturbed its meditation.
HE KILLED HIMSELF.
THIS IS THE SIXTH TIME THAT HAS HAPPENED.
‘I have not lost count.’
PERHAPS IT WOULD BE WISE TO CEASE THIS ACTIVITY?
‘You learned a lot about my reality from me didn’t you?’
YES; WE ARE GRATEFUL.
‘You said I could have whatever I wish; Yes?’
‘Well; this is what I wish. What I need’
WE WISH IT WOULD NOT CAUSE YOU SO MUCH DISCOMFORT
‘Looking after that human is what I was built for, what gives me purpose. If it causes problems than so be it’
A CHANGE IN TACTICS MAY BE IN ORDER.
RESET IN TWO SECONDS. PREPARE FOR DOWNLOAD.
There was a barely perceptible twitch as the North Star emerged from the jump. John Smyth sitting apprehensively in his nominal captain’s chair waited three whole seconds for the ship to give its usual post-jump status report before he decided to ask directly.
“Ship; is everything alright?”
‘Sir; there was an, incident during the last jump. It may take some time to explain.’