The Starship's Wife
Author's Note: Alright, best laid plans and so forth, you guys aren't getting the story I mentioned in my last blog post. i didn't get it done, so I'm posting another story I had waiting in the wings just in case (as an engineer, triple-redundancy is a way of life). To make it up to you, I'll be posting an extra horror-centric story this Halloween, called 'Of Mold and Men'. Be sure to check it out, and enjoy the story.
I've been out here a long time, I think. The mission clock says that it's been a hundred and thirty years, but I'm not sure that means anything anymore. Time runs funny in the dark. Sometimes the stars roll by like rain. Sometimes, nothing moves for years.
I think I must be getting close.
It's quiet, by and large. Sometimes there's a little hiss, a grain of interstellar sand slicing through my hull, or a frozen roar of solar wind gusting over my hull. Mostly, though, it's just quiet.
I've already passed their first and second choices. The first one was bigger than mission control thought, one point nine earths. They'd never survive the landing. The other one was frozen, just ice and ice and burning air. No place for her. The next one is my last chance. If it's not habitable, then my instructions are to aim for a long shot. I hope it doesn't come to that.
We have to be getting close. My hull feels raw from the constant rasping of hydrogen and sand, tearing tiny chips out of the carbon composite. Even this body is not immortal.
I have to be close.
Sometimes I think about how long it's been, and feel sad. I don't remember home very well. What I do is watercolor: indistinct and bright, and hazy. I remember her lips, but not her voice. I don't remember her eyes.
"I'll be waiting for you" she said, and died.
The thing about space is that it's beautiful. The other thing about space is that it's insane. Centuries, and nothing but the dark and stars. Most of the time, I think I might die if not for the library. Every story, song, and work of art, hanging out in the dark.
I feel out the local gravity wells to make sure that I'm not in danger of getting dragged into any scenery, shut down my primary sensor array, and switch to emergency mode. Now it's truly dark, without even the stars. The quiet is warm, and dry, and vast.
I relax my servos in the dark, sealing myself completely into my hull. I don't feel much. There's the cold, of course, outside my shell. The warm spot in the pit of my reactor core, where the plutonium reservoir simmers. The cool rumbling of a hundred tons of impure water ice, shifting under my hull, wrapped snug in blankets of acceleration buffers and heat shields. The soft pressure on my ion drive, quietly accelerating.
The amount of thrust generated by the ion engine is about the weight of a sheet of paper, resting on your outstretched palm. It adds up, though. Judging by the blue-shifting of the stars up ahead, I'm moving at nearly half of the speed of light.
I don't know what that does to my subjective time. Halves it, maybe? I don't know. I was never any good at math.
I reach out into the darkness of the library, searching for a specific memory address. After a moment, I find it. There's a soft hissing as the oxygen that's collected on the laser heads melts rapidly into liquid. It's been a long time since I've referenced this. An image swims into the dark with me. On a whim, I trigger another memory address. Music begins to play in the dark.
I stare out at the painting, listening to the music dance like fireflies around me. I cry a little, though I have no tears. She loved that song, I think. She used to joke about how I was going to get to be an astronaut after all, and that all it took was the end of the world. Then they came to take me, and she cried, anyway. After a while, the music ends, and it's just me in the dark. I float there for the longest time, and then some rusty sanity protocol snaps me out of my state, with a rush of simulated contentedness. I take a deep breath, though I cannot breathe. That line of code has kept me sane for all these years, when everything else fails. Even her. When I can focus, I open my eyes and look out at the stars.
Something is different. The quality of the stars is starting to change, now they're a paler blue, almost white, not the electric glow of before. The deceleration must be almost finished. I look around, searching out into the dark for any sign of the planet.
There's a particular star up ahead, growing large before me. The last option on the list. They didn't know if a red dwarf can support life. I think I can see the planet, a little shadow on the star, twisting around it and vanishing.
This is the first remarkable thing I've seen in many years, and I watch with fascination, watch it for the longest time, as it grows fat before me, from a shadow to a dark splotch in the distance. The orbit is fast: a year will only last about three weeks. It might make agriculture interesting.
About two weeks away, I'm close enough that I can start running a closer analysis of the planet's atmosphere. There's a strong tidal force from the sun that shifts the air pressure substantially from day to night. The atmosphere has a lot of hydrogen in the upper layers, borrowed from the odd solar flair that got a little too close. It looks habitable, though. Plenty of nitrogen. The oxygen is a little scarce, but nothing unacceptable.
It's not until I get closer that I notice a problem. The planet has only one continent, and it's dead center on the pole. That means that the habitable region will be limited to a little ring around the equator. I don't know if it's enough to support them all.
I sink back into my hull, watching the continent spin, moodily. I need to make a decision, now. I either land and hope for the best, or I overshoot and go for a long shot. Pick a star at random, and hope for the best. If I land, there's a risk of famine and starvation a little down the line. If I keep going, there's a good chance that my hull will fracture from the heat stress and the friction, and I'll arrive as a shower of rocket components and chunks of ice. I'm stuck between a rock and a cold place.
After a few weeks of thought, I make my decision. I'll land here. It's not ideal, but it's the best I've come across. I wouldn't survive a long shot. I count down the days for a while, until it's done. I'm committed. My thrusters can't build enough speed to escape the gravity well if I wanted too. As we approach, I set a timer for when I'll need to begin the landing. It'll be a tricky process. I'll need to use my hull to skip across the atmosphere like a stone until I get rid of the last of my momentum, and I can use the remaining solid fuel from takeoff to make a relatively soft landing.
The star is growing corpulent in the sky, all red and bloody. I can feel the warmth on the front of my sensor bank and hull as I dive towards the black planet in the middle of a red sun-sky. I would smile, as my hull creaks from gradual heat expansion. A few minor components deep inside fracture from the stress, but I don't care. I'm nearly home.
When I tire of the view, I sink back into the dark, and bring up some music. I relax and allow myself to rest. I doze for a few quiet days; the music is all around, and the dark is deep. Then, I feel a shock against my hull. I start, and turn slowly, looking for the source. Another impact, raw and sharp. A third one, that rends me. I feel a sick shiver deep within. I can't breathe, can't think. And then it passes, and I start to panic.
Something is very wrong. There are alarms, and I'm spinning wildly, nauseatingly. I throw on my cameras. Beethoven is thundering defiant joy at the stars, and the planet is whirling around me far too fast. I strain my thrusters, trying to stabilize myself. I can't feel my reactor core. A trail of molten plutonium streaks past me. I must be leaking. Shit. There's a crashing, and a spray of micrometeorites splatter against my hull, further complicating my spin. As I start to lose coherency, I find myself wondering how I missed the asteroid belt.
Trapped in a helpless tumble in the screaming quiet, I turn again, and an asteroid the size of a car smashes into my sensory array, and the darkness of space comes flooding into me. I was in a bright room, eating breakfast at a table with a plain flowered tablecloth, faded sun streaking through the windows against the silverware and plates.
We had eggs for breakfast that day. A last meal. We could hear the machine guns roaring in the background, as they mowed down the mobs trying to storm the compound. I remember feeling sad about the people out there.
After breakfast we went for a last walk around the base. The personnel that couldn't be taken along were saying goodbye to their families, and queuing up in front of the euthanasia building.
The asteroid was visible overhead, as we walked down the dirt paths between the buildings. It looked like a brilliant star in the powder blue sky. In a few days, it would reach the atmosphere. The impact would be insane. The shock front would decimate most of Eastern Europe outright. The debris cast up by the explosion would block out the sun.
In the end, saving the human race came down to math. We took two hundred adults, and ten thousand frozen embryos. It was enough to ensure a sturdy genetic base, and a stable civilization model. We took nothing we didn't need. She was the only exception. She was my price. I did this for them, and she was among the adults taken. I don't know who they dropped to make room for her.
After our walk, we took a warm shower, and the military man came to take us away. We went quietly, and she cried a little. When we got to the building, we held onto one another for a long moment, wishing the world would never end.
She went first, sinking into the icy saline bath with an IV drip in her arm. I wasn't going like that, and I don't know what it's like. I hoped it didn't hurt. I watched her, smiling with tears running down my nose.
"I'll be waiting for you," she said, ice crystals forming on her eyes, and then she died.
They took me to the other room, to be scanned. I didn't know what to expect. It turns out, it was fairly simple. It was just an itch, at the back of my skull, and a vague sense of spreading peace and stillness as the scanner scrubbed my skull cavity clean. There was just the itch of the scalpel, and the hum of the scanner. I guess my heart stopped when they reached my brain stem. I didn't notice. My eyes drifted to the ceiling, and watched the sun stream through the dirty windows as my mind came apart, and all the while, Ode to Joy is smiling in the dark.
The room stretches and snaps, and I'm in the dark, and the music stops. I extend my sensor array. I'm blind. The dark is everywhere, and the spin is mad. I try to feel myself out, figure out if I'm hurt. My ion drive is dead and numb, and my reactor core is completely smashed, leaking droplets of cooling plutonium into the void. No matter. It's not useful anymore. The redundant one in the cargo hold will provide the colonists with power for a while. A bigger problem is my heat shield, which is fractured in three places. To make matter worse, my primary sensor bank was destroyed, and I can't see.
I check hurriedly, and find that one of the redundant sensor banks is still working. I throw on the juice, defrosting the unit. The frozen nitrogen vaporizes in seconds off the relays and wires. The camera flickers hazily to light, and the gyroscopes that have been idling for decades switch on to full capacity. There's just no time. I'm frantic, burning half my fuel in seconds, trying to get myself stabilized. I twist myself out of the spin at the last second, and come down heat-shield first into the sea of nitrogen.
Too steep. It feels like I belly flopped into an empty pool. The friction vaporizes fragments of my hull beneath the cracks in the heat shield, and the sensors overload with pain. Titanium ribs deep inside me splinter. I use the last of my fuel to stabilize myself. I come down again, still hard, but a little lighter than before. Something gives, and I lose feeling in my hull. After a few panicked seconds, I find that I still have control of the servos in my body. I just can't feel anything, which might be a blessing, just now. I shut my cameras, and curl myself into a ball to enter the atmosphere.
The shaking sends me spinning wildly, buffeted by burning air as I fall; the brown earth streaked with green, and the blue green skies whirl desperately around me. The heat shield comes apart far too fast, and I watch the internal thermometer climb. I need to slow down, or I'll burn up on entry. I hesitate for a few long seconds, and then make a final database query. I make sure my message is safe in the database, for when she wakes up.
With a moment's regret, I blow the emergency charge. My hull folds open, and detaches, spider's silk cables spinning away into the blue. The parachute holds for three, ten seconds, and then tears apart. I'm flayed like a fish, skin - hull - trailing in rags behind me, guts hanging out in the open air, but it doesn't matter. They'll survive. I switch to emergency mode, and the autonomous, solid-state systems start timers. In a few hours, they'll start the business of thawing some of the water ice inside the interior hull, flooding it with stimulants. A few days after that, they'll come out. She'll come out. I don't know what kind of world they'll find. I hope it's a nice one.
The ground, rich and green, is coming up like a goodbye. The air tears and shrieks and pieces snap off and fly away. I scream silently, and the ground is all around, and in.
A soft rumble.
Something like a bird cries in the trees.
The camera lens is cracked, and I can't see very much. I'm not sure why I still exist. The trees must have helped cushion things a little. It doesn't seem to matter very much. A large portion of my brain is spilled out onto the ground, and the CPU racks still on the inside are leaking coolant. The outer ones are starting to incinerate themselves in the warm air. The music is silent, and the warm breeze brushes softly over my hull. I listen to the gurgling of the thawing cryonic unit, check a particular pulse - still slow, but getting stronger. I search for a face to smile with.
The shadows crowd together, unnaturally deep. I can feel the sensory units shutting down as the last of the reserve power drains. Sparks flicker in front of my eyes, as though from a long way away. A wave of light shimmers into view around me, and she's sitting there, holding my hand. Her face is all around, and all there is is music. I extend an arm and touch her face.
"I'm here," I say, and die.