The lights flickered. Once, twice.
Cade’s heart leapt with them. The temperature aboard Rhapsody fluctuated from time to time, but the lights were on for a solid and precise sixteen hours. Aimy switched them off at twenty-two hundred hours. The ship remained in darkness for eight hours while he slept. On nights when he couldn’t sleep, he carried a hand-light, which illuminated only a few steps ahead, and had to be recharged from the ship’s power.
The overhead lights never deviated.
He moved to the doorway and stood listening.
On a normal day, he would have considered the ship almost silent. He’d heard the same sounds for most of his life, and long ago tuned them out; white noise which meant they were still heading forward.
Not since he’d first boarded had he heard them the way he did right now. Rhapsody echoed with the hum of the engines, the clunk of something turning over. Sounds which first unsettled him, then lulled him to sleep as a small boy until he’d forgotten to listen. The knowledge that he was alone, and a long way from anyone or anything was never more acute.
The temperature dropped again, like a sudden chill breeze. Cade shivered and rubbed his hands up and down his arms.
“Aimy, if this is part of your humour algorithm, it’s not funny.”
The lights went out, plunging the corridor into relentless darkness. Cade blinked, but the total absence of light gave his eyes nothing to adjust to. His heart started pounding. Blood raced through his ears like a stampede of animals in a nature documentary, fleeing from a predator.
The air felt thicker, his lungs struggling to draw breath. A bead of sweat trickled down his forehead and onto his cheek before dripping away. His head started to swim.
“This is it, I’m going to die,” he muttered.
As if to punctuate his words, the lights turned back on and the temperature rose. He gasped to suck in a breath as the atmosphere returned to normal. He lowered himself to the floor, his legs no longer willing to hold him up, and sat waiting for his head to clear.
“I do not know why,” Aimy’s sudden words made him jump.
“What?” Cade frowned. The AI wasn’t known for non-sequiturs. But then Aimy hadn’t gone offline like this before either.
“You asked why anyone out there might access Bex and Tine, rather than contacting Rhapsody.”
“Oh, yeah.” He frowned, trying to recall the details of the conversation. It felt as though it had taken place hours ago. No more than three or four minutes had passed.
“Maybe they tried,” he said at last. Or are trying to right now. He swallowed and looked toward the porthole which was blocked from view by the wall. He forced himself to his feet, unsteady legs wobbling.
“Perhaps,” Aimy replied, “I have no record of any messages received in the last fifteen years, four months, two days and twenty-two point zero nine hours.”
“Do you really need to be that specific? Never mind.” Of course Aimy did. The AI was always precise.
“You’d prefer I not mention the duration of time which has elapsed since the attack,” Aimy stated.
“Yes. I’d very much like if you’d stop mentioning it altogether.” Even if it was the single biggest, most pivotal even in his life thus far, Cade didn’t need a daily reminder.
“I apologise if I caused you distress.” Aimy sounded contrite. “My intention was to convey that I have no record of recent messages.”
Fifteen years was recent?
“What about that time you lost?” Cade asked. “The hour or whatever?”
“One hour and — ” Aimy paused, “Around an hour and a half.”
Cade blinked. He hadn’t meant for the AI to be quite so inexact, but it was an interesting change, and those were rare enough out here.
“Yes, that. I suppose you wouldn’t know if there was a message then. Or — ”
“Yes?” Aimy prompted. “Do you have a question?”
“Well . . .” He hesitated. “Can you tell if anyone is out there?”
“Negative. External scanner distance is shorter than communication distance, due to the — ”
Cade could almost feel Aimy thinking of an alternate reference. “Because of the attack,” he finished for the AI. “Why did you go offline a minute ago? And why did the lights go out?”
A long pause fell. He started to think Aimy had gone again the AI responded.
“I was not offline Cade. Nor did the lights go out.”
Whatever the name of the movie was, Cade couldn’t remember. It might have had a plot, but he hadn’t followed it. Why the two men on the screen were fighting, he’d no idea. One punched the other in the jaw and he reeled.
Once, when he was about eight, he’d asked Aimy if striking a person would hurt. Rhapsody’s gym included punching bags. He’d hit one of those several times and the pain in his hand made him cry. His body was softer than a punching bag, so he surmised that it might not, until Aimy reminded him that the human face was all skull. In movies, the AI added, people were pretending, otherwise a punch delivered hard enough could break a hand.
Still, any kind of violent interaction fascinated Cade. His emotions got the better of him at times, so he’d run around the ship, or use the gym. The idea of taking that anger out on another person was outside his immediate experience. It was surreal to think that humans often treated each other like that. Given its recurrence in so many movies, it must be an everyday thing on Earth.
Tonight it didn’t hold his interest.
In spite of Aimy’s assurances, he was certain he’d stood alone in darkness. The palms of his hands broke into a sweat just thinking about it. His chest tightened.
“Cade, your heart rate is elevated,” Aimy pointed out.
“No shit,” he muttered. “I think I’m going to go and do a workout.” He reached for the power button, but Aimy turned off the vid screen before he reached it.
“Maybe you should rest instead.”
“I’m not tired.” His mind was racing, making his body feel wired and on edge. “I need to work it off.”
“You could read,” Aimy suggested, “I’ll bring up the menu of erotic material. Masturbating will help you to relieve stress.” The AI almost sounded desperate.
“I appreciate the suggestion, but I feel like throwing some weights around.” Cade headed for the door. “You’re usually nagging me to go and exercise, what’s with the change?”
“With the oddities on board, the safest place for you is inside your cabin,” Aimy replied.
“What oddities? A few beans went brown and you lost some time. You said I imagined the rest of it.”
“All the more reason to rest.”
“If I’m losing my mind, then what will lying down do?” Unless a psychologist appeared on board then he wasn’t going to be having a therapy session.
The lights went out.
“I said I don’t want to rest,” Cade growled.
“Understood,” Aimy replied, sounding surly.
“So turn the lights back on,” Cade insisted.
“The lights are on.”
“Aimy, I’m standing here in the dark, I swear.” Cade swallowed down the panic which started to rise. “I’m telling you, it’s pitch black. I can’t even see the wall. It’s —
Cade jumped as the voice spoke from behind him. He whirled to see a green light floating at eye-height.
“Bex? I thought you’d been deactivated?”
The light flashed blue. “BX unit is functional.”
“Yeah… Do you see that the lights are off?”
“BX unit has not got eyes, Cade Knox.” The android made a whirring sound. “Sensors indicate the absence of light.”
The surge of triumph was short-lived. If Cade wasn’t going nuts, them Aimy might be.
“You’re outnumbered, Aimy.” He tried to keep his voice light, but it squeaked on the final syllable.
“Who are you speaking to?” The AI sounded perplexed.
“Bex. It said that — ”
The lights came on and he was standing alone in an empty corridor.
Cade stretched out his full length out on the bed. It was the same bed he’d slept in since he’d first come on board Rhapsody. It felt and smelled the same, but the familiarity was no comfort. He couldn’t sleep. He doubted throwing a hundred weights would be enough.
The lights were off, the ship’s nighttime protocols in place this time. He could cover the porthole with a slide-down, blocking out the stars, but he left it open. The tiny dots of lights winking at him were the only things which kept him from feeling alone. Out there were countless planets teeming with life. Families enjoying each other’s company, people fighting, making love, making war.
“Why didn’t you kill me?” he asked, staring at the ceiling.
“Kill you?” Aimy asked.
“Yes. When everyone else was killed, shouldn’t you have turned off life-support to conserve fuel? I’m sure Bex and Tine would have happily incinerated me along with everyone else.” His ashes could have floated in space, mingling with that of his parents. The dust of two generations dispersed across the galaxy.
“You were not dead,” Aimy replied. “I could not have killed you. My job is to maintain the operation of Rhapsody and her crew, even if the crew is only one small boy. Did I fail in this task?”
The question was so human it made Cade’s eyes water. “I’m still alive, aren’t I?” He wiped his face with his sleeve. “In spite of the brown beans.” And hallucinations.
“My system reads normal heart rate and respiration,” Aimy replied. “I conclude that you are indeed alive.”
Cade snorted. “At least we agree on that.” He nestled down into his pillow. It didn’t really smell like his parents, but the same detergent had washed the fabric once a week since he’d boarded. This, his mind had long ago decided, was how they must have smelled. If not them, then their clothes. would have. He remembered going down to the ship’s laundry with his mother to wash their things, then wait for a spare dryer to use afterward. Sometimes she’d chat to him about topics he could no longer recall. Other times, she’d take a tablet and read a book, or talk to other adults in the laundry. There were always kids around, running up and down the corridor, but he’d always been expected to stay where his mother could see him. Once or twice he’d snuck off to play, and she hadn’t even noticed, but he’d felt guilty afterward.
“What happens if I’m going crazy? Will you have to kill me then?”
“I will not kill you,” Aimy replied.
“I might have been more reassured if you’d said I’m not going crazy,” Cade said, giving the ceiling a wry smile.
“That is not the correct medical term. If you’re hallucinating then it’d be referred to as — ”
“Yeah, never mind,” Cade interrupted, “I don’t want to know. The airlock is designed so no one can throw themselves out, isn’t it?” He recalled overhearing his parents discussing it. Everyone — his mother had said — was vetted by a team of psychologists before they were employed aboard, or allowed to become part of the contingent of colonists. If any were even a zero point one percent suicide risk, they were excluded from consideration. The safety feature was a waste of money and engineering time.
Dad had smiled and pointed out that no safety feature was a waste of time, except the one that was never added to the design. That had ended the conversation.
“Yes it is, and I would not have allowed you to do such a thing,” Aimy stated. “I would cut power to the airlock, or close the door to your room and keep you isolated.”
“Why?” Cade sat up and frowned. “What does it matter to you?”
“My job is to maintain the operations of —” The AI began to repeat the recitation of its role from several minutes earlier.
“Right, it’s your job.” Cade flopped back down. What was he expecting? The A in AI did stand for artificial, after all. A computer wasn’t going to care about him. Would anyone? If they did make it back to Earth, what would they do with him? He had no skills apart from picking beans, and he wasn’t quite right in the head. He might not be able to jettison himself into space, but that didn’t mean someone else wouldn’t do it.
“I know you feel alone,” Aimy said, the AI’s volume lower than normal. “I am sorry. I am attempting to be adequate company. Perhaps I need to search the database for a suitable upgrade.”
“What, like a dad algorithm?” Cade asked. “I doubt anyone thought to make such a thing. Blame my flawed father.” This kind of scenario wouldn’t have been anticipated; ironic given the way his father had hidden him away during the attack. Were his last thoughts a mental chastisement for forgetting something his son could have used so many years later? No, he’d probably hoped that Cade would survive and be found. At least he’d done the first part.
“You are correct, no one installed such an upgrade. However, I will search for something which may ease your mind somewhat. A psychological algorithm perhaps?”
“Oh good, I can’t wait.” Cade smirked. “I’m sure you’ll tell me all about why I’m seeing — ”
He jumped as a thud resounded through the Rhapsody. That was followed by a high-pitched whine and another, softer thud.
“What in the hell?” Cade jumped up from his bed so fast he almost stumbled and fell.
When Aimy replied, the AI sounded perplexed. “I do not understand.”
“Don’t understand what? What’s going on?”
The entire ship jerked sideways. Cade windmilled his arms to keep from losing his footing.
“I don’t know who or how, but Rhapsody is being boarded.”
Author: Mirren Hogan