The metal corridor echoed under Cade Knox’s bare feet. It was always 10.0 degrees Celsius in this part of the ship. Cold enough for mild hypothermia if he stopped moving long enough. He suspected it was to keep him out. He always came anyway.
“Cade, what are you doing in the hold?” The voice of the ship’s AI made him jump.
“Just out for a walk, Aimy.” Even though the AI’s voice sounded masculine, Cade had given it the name as a child, and it had stuck. One of the few memories he had of his mother was her laughing and saying the AI sounded male and should have a boy’s name like Aiden or Airen. It made no sense to him; the AI was artificial, how could it be either a man or woman? Cade had smiled and gone on calling it Aimy.
“You should be in hydroponics picking beans.” For what should be an emotionless voice, Aimy managed to sound scolding.
“Bex and Tine can do it, they like menial labour.”
The sound which came from the speaker above his head sounded like a sigh.
“You know BX and T9 are engineering and maintenance androids.”
“Who?” Cade grinned. He glanced toward one of Aimy’s cameras, a dimple reflecting in its glassy surface.
Aimy sighed again. “Bex and Tine.”
“Oh, them.” Cade took pleasure in getting under Aimy’s titanium-plated skin, if only because the AI made it so easy. “Aimy, why did my father make you such a grouch?”
From what he could recall, his father had been a laid-back, jovial man, even if much of his time had been consumed with the ship’s systems. Built to house close to five hundred people, the Rhapsody was huge, and always seemed to need something done somewhere. Now it was empty of all but Cade, two androids and Aimy. At times, the AI seemed more human than the memories of his parents and the rest of the ship’s crew and passengers, but he still missed having real people around.
“Mikel Knox designed me to be functional. He did not anticipate my role would be to supervise you. He was human, he was flawed.”
Cade felt a flare of anger in his chest, in spite of the words being true. “My father kept me alive,” he snapped. Did he imagine the air of smugness radiating through the corridor? Getting under skin went both ways.
“Indeed. Would he want you shirking work to walk around the hold?”
“I don’t know what he’d want.” Cade’s last memory of his father was his face as he pushed him up into a storage locker.
“Stay here until someone comes for you,” Dad said. The ship rocked with another impact. Dad struggled to keep his feet. He tried to give a reassuring smile before he closed the hatch, but Cade saw his eyes wide with fear. The hatch clicked shut, leaving him in darkness but for a crack between the hinges. He focused on that, and tried to keep the darkness from swallowing him. The fear was irrational, according to his mother, but right now it made perfect sense.
Cade heard a man’s yell of alarm, and scrunched down as small as he could. The sounds were muffled, but shouting and screaming went on for ages. At intermittent intervals, the ship would rock.
Something nearby exploded and Cade bit back a cry. A sizzling, crackling sounded just below the locker and another scream followed. Something thudded. Cade swallowed hard. He peered through the gap, but couldn’t see anything but the opposite wall. Squinting, he thought he made out a bloody handprint. He closed his eyes and tried to pretend he was in his bed, nice and safe.
He didn’t know how long it was before everything went still and silent, it felt like ages. Now his father would come and get him out.
Cade waited. He wanted to do as his father said, but after a while, the need to use the toilet became pressing. If he wet his pants, the other kids would laugh, and his mother might get mad. He pushed the hatch. It didn’t move. Fighting back tears, he kicked at it. It popped open and fell back with a crash. He winced. Whoever attacked the ship might have heard.
Cade wriggled to the back of the locker and watched the entrance, his hands shaking, stomach hurting from his swollen bladder.
No one came.
Unable to wait any longer, he swung himself until his legs hung out of the locker, then let himself drop to the ground. It was further than he thought. He fell to his knees upon landing and bit back a sob. He was a big boy now, he might cry, but he wouldn’t do it where people could see.
He got to his feet and wiped his sleeve over his eyes and nose.
“Hello?” he called out. The handprint was still there, but looked dry now. Cade wasn’t about to touch it to find out. “Is someone here?”
Cade started walking, peering around corners but seeing no one. His mother should be in the sick bay, but if something bad happened, she’d be busy. He didn’t want to get in trouble for getting underfoot.
His father should be on the bridge. At only five, he wasn’t allowed there without permission from the captain, but this — he decided— was a special situation. He bit his lip. Would he get into trouble on the bridge too? There was a toilet nearby, and that was what made up his mind. He wasn’t supposed to walk around the ship by himself either, so he moved a little faster. Not that it was his fault he wasn’t with a grown-up, but sometimes they didn’t see things the way he did.
The door to the bridge was open, which in itself was peculiar. Not as strange as the sound coming from inside. Who was cleaning now?
He peered inside. “Bex?” One of his favourite androids, Cade had struggled to say BX, so he’d blended the sounds to make it easier. Even his mother used the name now.
Bex turned so its face-like screen was facing him. A blue light blinked for a moment before turning green. Cade always thought of it as its recognition system identifying him. One day he should wear a mask to trick Bex, just for fun.
“Cade Knox,” Bex stated, its voice neither masculine, nor feminine, but robotic.
Cade saw his reflection in Bex’s screen. He looked small and scared. Drawing himself up, he asked, “What’s going on Bex?”
“The Rhapsody came under attack,” Bex said, as though describing a loose bolt, “by Centaurians. Everyone on board is dead. Except you. You are not dead.” The android cocked its head.
Its cold, passionless tone made Cade stare. “What do you mean, dead?”
Bex’s light flashed blue again before returning to green. “Their bodies ceased to function. They became deceased. They are — ”
“But my dad — ” Cade cried. Only then did he see blood on the consoles and work stations around the bridge. There seemed to be grey stuff and bits of bone smeared over the FTL screens. Whatever it was, it made his stomach turn.
Dark scorches marred other systems. The bridge smelled like cold smoke and urine.
Cade turned a full circle, eyes wide. He saw where Bex had already scoured things clean, washing away the signs of conflict.
“Aimy, where’s my dad?” The AI might have better answers. Maybe Bex was wrong.
It was Bex who responded. “All bodies have been incinerated.”
“You burned my Dad!” Cade sat down on the floor, head spinning, tears flowing down freckled cheeks. “I want my mother!”
“Calla Knox was incinerated,” Bex said.
“There must be someone!”
“There is no one, Cade Knox. There is only you.”
Cade shook his head, bringing himself back to the present. It was colder now. “Have you turned the temperature down again?” He rubbed his hands up and down his arms.
Undeterred, he stepped forward a few paces and looked upward. The hatch to the storage locker was still open, the way he’d left it fifteen years ago. Once in a while he’d wonder if he should close it, but he never did. In some way it’d feel like he was shutting the door on the past. While he was stranded on the Rhapsody, travelling slowly with what engine power the ship still had, he couldn’t put it behind him. A part of him knew that in closing it, he’d have to admit that his parents were dead. It was easier to let himself pretend that some day they’d return for him.
Sometimes he wished the Centaurians had killed him too. All of the long years alone with a bossy AI and two androids should be enough to drive anyone insane. How would he even know if he was sane? He had nothing to measure himself against, except the ship’s vast catalogue of old movies and books. From what he’d seen and read, he was more sane than many, but less than some. At least he didn’t talk to himself.
“Cade, those beans won’t pick themselves.” Aimy reminded him.
“Let me guess, my father was too flawed to design a bean-picking computer.” With a reluctant sigh, he turned and headed toward the exit to the hold.
“Indeed,” Aimy replied, sounding amused, “but he made a bean-picking child.”
Cade gave a short laugh. “Did you just make a joke?”
“I may have just upgraded my humour algorithms,” the AI replied.
“Well, shit,” Cade drawled. He’d picked up that expression from one of those old movies. “It’s about damn time. Any chance of unlocking the porn movies now?”
“You know the Rhapsody’s memory banks don’t contain explicit material,” Aimy replied.
“Yeah, yeah, so you say.” Cade reached the doorway leading from the hold and stepped through. The air was immediately warmer out here. “Try being a guy alone out here.”
“I am the only AI in this part of space,” Aimy pointed out.
“As far as you know.” After the Centauri damaged their long-range communicators, they were unable to contact Earth or her colonies. If any ships passed, they were too far away to receive a signal, or they ignored it. Cade didn’t like to think about the latter. The idea that people passed without bothering to pick him up instilled a sense of helpless that lasted for days.
“At least you have Bex and Tine to talk to.”
“They lack a complex conversation system,” Aimy said.
“Ain’t that the truth.” They answered questions in a precise manner, and went about their duties, but as company went, they left much to be desired.
The walk to the hydroponics bay was short. In spite of trying to duck harvesting duty, it was his favourite part of the ship. He liked to walk between the plants in bare feet, and pretend he was on a planet somewhere. He’d spent some time on Earth before his parents got jobs escorting colonists to the Alpha Centauri system. The memory of grass and sky, flowers and wind, running across a small park and playing on swings still remained as one of his strongest. The children’s movies he still enjoyed watching reinforced the memory to the point where he wondered if he’d seen them himself at all. Long ago, he’d decided that he had, and he clung to that. Perhaps that too was a sign his mental health suffered, but he didn’t care.
Rhapsody’s hydro bay consisted of artificial lighting which simulated night and day, and trays of water or soil, and plants. Nothing frivolous like lawn, or flowers grown to enjoy their scent. Still, it was earthy and real. Cade recalled reading somewhere that people felt connected to nature in ways that the author didn’t quite explain. Something about the connection to their home planet. He believed it. People didn’t belong on metal boxes flying through space.
“Why didn’t they store seeds for a few roses or something?” he asked, making his way to the beans.
“There was no need for roses, nor room.”
Cade gestured around at dozens of empty trays of soil. “There’s room now.”
“Rhapsody wasn’t designed for a crew of one,” Aimy pointed out.
“Yeah, no kidding,” Cade replied. He stepped on the dirt, feeling it compress under his feet. “You’d think they’d want familiar and plants for the colony.” If there was anything he understood, it was the desire to cling to things which evoked memories by their scent, sound or how the looked.
“Humans have had a history of introducing alien species to an ecosystem,” Aimy replied, “Often with adverse affects. An Earth rose bush could wipe out an alternate species of flowering plant on a colony. That plant might be vital for crop pollination, or maintaining a balance in the environment. Or eating insects deadly to humanoids.”
Cade shrugged. “I guess that’s why the Centauri didn’t want us there. People aren’t that great for the environment.” A few centuries of technology and they’d severely depleted the resources of poor old Mother Earth. So the databanks said anyway, and the profusion of dystopian and post – apocalyptic books and movies included in the library, like The Hunger Games, and The Permutation archives, by Kindra Sowder. Humanity seemed obsessed with death and destruction.
“The Centauri are very territorial,” Aimy added. “They petitioned the Earth government several times to keep humans out of their sector of space, even though they couldn’t breathe the air on either colony planets.”
“So you’ve told me. I still don’t get why they killed everyone on board. I mean, why not just disable the ship?” They’d gone over this, but had never managed to come up with any firm answers. The Centauri had attacked three or four ships before the Rhapsody, and always killed everyone and left the ship to float. According to Aimy, they couldn’t breathe in the atmosphere on board either, making the vessel useless to them. The amount of explosives it’d take to destroy the Rhapsody was more than they bothered to spare. Lucky for him, he supposed. He was also fortunate they’d left the controls intact enough for Aimy to turn the ship for a long, slow trip back to Earth.
Cade stepped out of the soil and grabbed a bucket for the beans. “Do you think they’re still arguing?”
“Given the history of Earth and the tenacious nature of humans, it seems possible,” Aimy replied.
“Yeah.” Cade inspected a bean before pulling it off its plant. It was long and green, but for a section of brown on one end. “Thought you said these were ready? This one looks like it’s going bad already.”
“Hold it down lower please.” Aimy had eyes in every part of the ship, but those in the hydro bay were aimed at the door and the trays of plants to assess readiness.
Cade did as asked. “It’s not the only one. I see several more from where I’m standing.”
“This shouldn’t be.” Aimy sounded perplexed. “They were ready when I spoke to you, approximately forty-two minutes, fifteen point oh one seconds ago.”
“Huh? Since when do things go bad that fast?” Cade raised the bean to his nose and sniffed. “It smells okay. Is the temperature all right in here?”
“One moment.” Aimy’s speakers buzzed. “Indeed it is five degrees warmer than optimal.”
As soon as the AI said it, Cade realised it was hotter in the hydro bay than usual. He hadn’t noticed after being in the cold hold.
“How did it change?” He bent to pick more beans.
“What? You didn’t do it?”
“Negative,” Aimy replied.
“Bex and Tine?” Cade asked. Sometimes they fiddled with systems and made changes they deemed necessary, although not with air temperatures, that he could recall.
“You would know if any of us changed it,” he said.
The AI paused.
“Aimy?” Cade was becoming nervous.
“There is an hour and twenty-two minutes unaccounted for on my system,” Aimy replied.
“How? What? When?” he asked in a rush.
He shuddered when Aimy replied.
In spite of brown spots here and there, the beans tasted fine with rice and a sauce made from soy cheese and milk. It was bland, but consisted of enough calories for Aimy’s satisfaction. Some day, Cade should learn to cook, but why bother when he could put the ingredients into a slot in the kitchen and Aimy would do the rest? Besides, it was easier to blame the AI if a combination didn’t work.
“I assume these beans aren’t toxic or something?” he asked, having finished most of the meal.
“I analysed them before they were cooked,” Aimy said, “I found nothing of concern, apart from premature atrophy initiated by an excess of heat.”
“It was too hot, they went bad, got it.” Cade finished off his food and put his plate in the washer.
“Indeed. I think it best to shut down Bex and Tine until I’ve ascertained the reason for my lost time.”
Cade frowned. “That’s a bit extreme, isn’t it?”
“Negative. The closer we come to Earth, the greater the chance of interference by entities unknown.”
“You think they were hacked?” That was another term he’d picked up from the old movies, but it seemed appropriate.
“I can discern no other cause,” Aimy admitted.
“Why not just come aboard? Or contact us. I mean, if they’re that close— “Cade glanced toward a porthole, but saw nothing but stars and blackness, a virtually identical view for along. He’d half-hoped to see a ship.
“Aimy?” He turned from the porthole upon realising the AI hadn’t responded. “Aimy.”
All Cade heard in response was silence.
To be continued…
Author: Mirren Hogan