What if you knew that you only had twenty-five years to live, safely and surely, but you would be alone, watching your death approach, unable to escape it?
And what if you knew that whatever you did or accomplished in that time would most certainly never be known by the rest of your people? So you won’t be leaving behind a legacy of observations and musings. Not even raw data collected by the sensors will make it out. What would you do? Who would you be?
Do you think you’d last?
Do you think I will last?
I like being alone as much as the next introvert, but this isn’t the way I wanted to do this. I’m still human. I need—I am loathe to admit—people.
But the temporal barrier prevents me from talking to anyone outside of the spatial phenomenon, and it prevents anyone outside of the spatial phenomenon from talking to me.
Why did I agree to this? I am both impulsive and reliable. That’s why. And reliably impulsive.
What a fool. To everyone outside Spatial Phenomenon Gamma-Zayin-04 I’ll be dead in five minutes. It’ll be sudden, but certain, and then whoever is inclined to mourn can mourn. And everyone can move on.
I’m the one who has to stew for twenty-five years.
No, it’ll be fine. My ship is fully equipped. It’s the most fully equipped ship there ever was. There’s enough food and water to last me for fifty years (now that I don’t have to share with two other people). I’ve brought enough subject matter to enlighten and entertain me for decades. There’s that virtual reality-simulation thing they built on the lower deck for if I really get lonely. And I can always talk to Jasper. He’s not exactly a person (though when I mentioned that I hoped to grow stronger and wiser, he said he hoped to do the same). If all else fails, I can spend some or all of my remaining time in a stasis pod. I can indulge in my own personal research. In fact, I can abandon all the assigned research if I want to. I mean, what’s Trans-Galactic going to do? Send someone else in after me? Ha!
All right. I’ll let my reliable side win, a little.
Let’s begin with the first of the annual status updates, followed by a raw data dump, and then I’ll launch the first of the annual probes, which I fully expect will never reach its destination.
“Date and time is marked. Proceeding with mission background and summary. My name is Danielle Ibari. I am captain and crew of a vessel named Forever. (My suggestion to call it the Futility was not appreciated by the Trans-Galactic Administration.) The crew may also include Jasper, the onboard artificial intelligence that is—who is—helping me to pilot and navigate a spatial phenomenon designated Gamma-Zayin-04. The phenomenon came to TGA’s attention fifty years ago. A series of probes were sent to study the phenomenon and gather enough data to determine whether further observation and investigation was warranted. It appears to be a planetoid comprising unidentifiable dense matter that radiates a limited field of energy. That vague description is based on a decades of observations from outside the phenomenon. And it remains vague for now. But I’ve only been inside for about a week.
“The initial studies determined that temporal disruptions and gravitational forces that exist around the phenomenon, or may be inherent to it, would make it impossible for anyone who traveled within a specified distance from being able to escape. So while there were some intriguing data coming from the many probes arrayed around this little ball of mystery, it wasn’t worth trying to send any people inside.
“But none of the probes that were sent in were able to transmit any data back. Even an old-fashioned ‘message in a bottle’ style tube launched at just the right time and place didn’t make it out. For a while, it just became an intellectual challenge for the math-heads at TGA to try and figure out some algorithm or set of equations to reach through that horizon, that Point of No Return, and talk to one of our lost probes. We couldn’t see them. We didn’t even know if they were still there.
“That all changed about five years after the phenomenon’s discovery, when something finally broke free of the Point of No Return. It was a message. Some believed at once that it was just our own message echoing back toward us. Others hoped that it confirmed there really was a planetoid in the center of the phenomenon and that it was inhabited. It took another year for the experts to clean up the signal and decipher it. Suffice it to say, the message was compelling enough for Trans-Galactic to decide that we needed to send a message back. It was a welcome. It acknowledged seeing our probes and hearing our ‘hello.’ So we tried sending more probes with an answer. But we waited and waited, and no more messages came out.
“The speculation was that the time on the other side of that Point of No Return was maybe running at a different speed, a slower speed. So they just hadn’t had time to respond. But we’d continued gathering data and observations from outside the phenomenon, and all indications were that time moved faster inside the phenomenon.
“Then, just as various proposals were being bandied about for further missions, we received another message. This one was a warning. In short it simply said, ‘Sorry. We’d love to meet you, but it’s too dangerous for you to come here, and it’s too dangerous for us to try and go to you. Maybe someday, when our technologies allow.’ And that was that. A year went by. Five years. A decade. No more messages came through.
“In time, we were able to determine that all probes that went past the Point of No Return were lost, crushed by the tidal forces within the phenomenon. That was the danger that our friends on the other side warned us about. And we were able to determine that the loss took from a few to several minutes from our perspective. But from the probes’ perspective, it took over two decades. Later, more advanced instruments were able to make that determination by picking up signals still swirling around in the outer layers of the phenomenon.
“We’ve been able to learn a lot about the outer layers of the phenomenon. Enough to risk sending one mad astronaut into it. There was a chance, a percentage that varied from 15.9 to 87.3, that a vessel could break free from the phenomenon given the right conditions. And even if that was not possible, that person might still be able to send back decades worth of data in just a matter of moments after entering the Point of No Return.”
“I missed the chance to break free. So I’m continuing on with the second part of the mission. I’ve cut the engines so that I will just drift for as long as I can, not fighting the phenomenon. I will gather data and observations for the next two decades. And then will send all of that information in a probe before Forever and I get crushed, and hope that you receive it.”
I stopped the recording, and shook my head.
If I knew that my data probe would be floating around, even for centuries, before someone found it, then I’d feel some degree of comfort. But it was probably going to be crushed, sucked into the center, dashed against the planetoid. Whatever the manner, it would be destroyed unless I could push it past the Point of No Return.
A sudden two beeps alerted me that I was not alone.
“Captain, you forgot to note the names of the dignitaries who provided their patronage to the mission.”
I sighed and waved my hand as I sat back in my chair. “Forget those guys. They’re not here, are they? You know who’s here?”
“You are, Jasper. You’re here with me. I made a mistake. Next year when I read off the mission summary, I’m going to say that I’m the captain, and that you and I are the crew.”
“While I appreciate the sentiment, I believe it sounds more…heroic for you to say that you and you alone are captain and crew.”
“To whom will it sound heroic?”
Jasper hesitated. “Your point is taken, Captain.”
“You know, after two years on the transport vessel, and two months slowly slipping into and past the Point of No Return, all I’ve done for a week is work and sleep.”
“I have observed that as well, Captain. I hope this realization means that you’re about to tell me that you’ll take some recreation.”
I smiled as a sudden happy realization overwhelmed me. “Some recreation? Do you mean for a few hours, a few days?”
“Perhaps longer, if you want, or need.”
I grinned. “How about a year?”
“Are you taking a sabbatical, Captain?”
“Indeed I am, and you’re taking it with me. Minimal maintenance duties only, for a year. The ship will never be in better condition than she is now. We might as well take advantage. What do you say?”
The first year—our vacation year—passed by in a snap. With Jasper’s help, I monitored the sensors and maintained the ship and even launched a futility probe or two. They wouldn’t let me name the ship with that word, but being as how these initial probes were not expected to break through the PNR, they allowed me to name them “futility.” And I kept up with my own maintenance. I exercised and meditated, and ran the complete gamut of tests every quarter using the full-body medical scanner. (Virtual doctors and therapists were programmed into the simulation room, but I didn’t feel the need for that yet).
But I didn’t start any experiments. Instead, I consumed as much of the media I’d brought onboard as I could. Books, movies, shows, and games I’d had on my to-do list. Visits to virtual worlds using the simulation system on the lower deck. Sometimes Jasper was curious and joined me for part of a movie marathon or played the warrior to my mage in a game.
When the year was done, I was ready and eager to be productive again, and to have a work routine.
And it didn’t take long for me to start feeling the cabin fever.
I programmed a happy hour scenario in the simulation room for those nights when I didn’t want to go to bed without some human interaction.
And soon enough, I programmed an entire crew situation there and transferred most of the functions of my work station to the simulation room console. I didn’t need happy hour as much after that.
But there was some work that could only be done on the upper deck and the real bridge of the ship. And I took to having a cup of something hot while chatting with Jasper, my feet up on one of the two empty chairs that were now unneeded but part of the ship’s original design.
“I’m worried that I might be getting too into this simulation, Jas,” I said one day.
“I think I’m attracted to the pilot.” I sighed and felt my face begin to flush. “Or…maybe…I’m developing actual feelings for him.” I shook my head. “For someone who’s not even real. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But…in that simulation room. It’s actually possible for me to…act on my desires.”
“Then why should you not?”
“Well, I can ask if it’s okay, but of course he’d say ‘yes.’ I’ve programmed them all to please me.”
“If that is your concern, then might I remind you there are several simulations of people who volunteered to have their likenesses simulated for the very purpose of ensuring your sexual health?”
“Yes, I’m aware.”
“If you form any attachments, they would even age alongside you.”
“I know,” I said with a sigh.
“Perhaps you can program the pilot with the ability to choose to reject your advances.”
I chuckled at the thought. “That’s great. Getting rejected on a ship where there are no other people.” I stopped laughing and sat up. “Oh, sorry, Jasper. I didn’t mean that. You are a person, of course. I just meant…”
“I’m not offended, Captain. I understand.”
“…corporeal. You’re non-corporeal. Wait, have you ever wanted a corporeal form? I’ve never asked.”
Jasper was silent for a beat. “I’m uncertain about the intent of your question, Captain. Do you want for me to download myself into one of the simulations, so that you and I—“
“Nope.” I raised a finger. “No, this is not about me. Everything on this ship is not about me. Don’t let me forget that. The intent of my question was as straightforward as my question.”
“The ship is my corporeal form.”
This time, I was silent for a moment. “Forgive me, Jas. I never thought of it that way. I just thought you were…inside of the ship, like me.”
“I am both.”
“Well, I need to start asking you a lot more questions about how you’re perceiving this phenomenon.”
“I am happy to answer your questions, as always.”
“You spoil me, Jasper. What did I ever do to deserve you?”
“For the great sacrifice you have made, the ship was programmed to meet all of your potential needs.”
“All of my needs.” I thought about that. Something unforeseen could happen to the ship, sure. But if it did, I wouldn’t suffer much before I died. But if Forever lasted as long as she was expected to last, all of my needs would be met. All of my needs.
“What if what I need is another soul?” I wondered aloud.
“I will do my best,” Jasper said.
And I smiled. “Thanks.”
“…and then will send all of that information in a probe before Forever gets crushed, and hope that you receive it.”
I stopped the recording of the mission brief, which wasn’t so brief after five years of floating in the phenomenon. We’d recorded a lot of data about Spatial Phenomenon Gamma-Zayin-04. We’d collected samples of debris and some kind of plasma-like substance that had begun sticking to the hull like barnacles on an ocean vessel. We were closer now to the center, close enough to see that there was indeed a planetoid. But not close enough to tell what was on it. The resolution of our sensors was still somewhat distorted and scattered by the milieu of the phenomenon.
As had become our custom, I sighed and raised a cup of wine into the air and said, “Happy Anniversary, Forever.”
I shifted the direction of my cup. “Happy Anniversary, Jasper.”
“Happy Anniversary, Captain,” Jasper replied.
I gazed out of the port window of the bridge. There was some kind of ribbon-like cloud forming and dissipating. It glimmered in shades of pink and green.
“It’s beautiful. How does it seem to you?”
Jasper didn’t reply right away, so I imagined him thinking about it. “Soft,” he said at last.
“And a bit cool.”
I glanced at the main bridge console. “Yes, sensors are registering a significant drop in temperature in that area.”
I thought I saw movement from the corner of my eye. I glanced over.
Jasper could see me, of course, with the internal sensors. He’d been noticing.
I shook my head. “Thought I saw something again. I don’t get it. I’ve been getting enough sleep.”
“But is it restful sleep.”
“Good point. I have been somewhat restless. And I have had some pretty vivid dreams.”
Vivid dreams. Auditory and visual hallucinations. I’d stopped using the simulation room because I thought my perceptual hiccups were being caused by too much time in a simulated reality. But it had been a few months, and I was still seeing and hearing things that weren’t there. I thought it might be my brain’s attempt to create in the real world what it was missing, stimulation from other corporeal people. It was one thing being startled when I thought a bug was crawling on my console, but quite another when I thought I heard footsteps behind me, or thought I saw someone walk past the door to my quarters.
Stasis. I could go into stasis. And I could stay in stasis. It was supposed to be a last resort. Something I was supposed to do if the ship was running on minimal energy. That’s why it was built into the escape pod. But I needed a break. Ironically, I needed to be alone, away from all those ghosts at the corners of my perception. Jasper would continue gathering data and launching probes at the appropriate times.
I felt as if I were abandoning him. But my first solution to the hallucination issue had been a costly one for the ship. I’d returned to working in the simulation room, keeping it filled with simulated people at all times, friendly, protective people. And I’d programmed a dog for myself. And an apartment on a busy street and an upstairs neighbor who was always chatting with someone at all hours.
The hustle and bustle of the simulation was a comfort to me, and a drain on Forever’s energy reserves. The ship didn’t have to move, but she did have to keep me alive.
If I went into stasis for maybe five years at a time, I’d solve both problems. My anxiety about being stuck on a ship that seemed haunted and the simulation room’s drain on the ship’s resources.
Jasper told me that there was no need to apologize. He too could shut himself down if he felt the need. But I knew he wouldn’t. His primary directive was to look after me. He couldn’t do that if he were shut down.
“Don’t worry about me,” Jasper assured me. “I’ll just enjoy a good long swim while you’re sleeping.”
At the ten-year mark, Jasper woke me. I stayed away for half a year, exercising, initiating some more experiments, researching, catching up with Jasper. He hadn’t really been “swimming” in the phenomenon of course. Forever had been floating, still just floating.
I was stunned to see that the planetoid was closer. But of course it was. We were almost halfway to it. But we still couldn’t see any signs of civilization. Or maybe there were no signs to see. Maybe those folks who’d thought those messages we received were echoes of messages we’d sent might have been right. Maybe I would send those messages. And maybe the messages, filtered through the spatial phenomenon, would warp and twist through time and end up being received long before I left for the mission.
I seemed to be okay now. I didn’t have any hallucinations. But when Jasper suggested it was time for me to go back into stasis for another five years, I didn’t argue.
It had felt good, to wake up after what seemed like a night and find out that I only had fifteen more years to go. The thought of waking up and having only ten more years was too tempting.
I considered being awake for those last ten years. Maybe I could do it, knowing there was an end.
I definitely wanted to be awake at the end. Even if it was frightening. Even if the ship was breaking apart, or being crushed.
So I went back to sleep.
And I woke again at the fifteen-year mark.
“How long has that been going on?” I asked after I’d gone through the wake-up procedures. I was staring out of the port window. The planetoid was there. And on its surface I saw flickering waves of blue and purple light.
“About two years,” Jasper said. “I’m guessing it’s some kind of weather phenomenon. Though it could be caused by purposeful activity. We’re still too far off to know for certain.”
Again I stayed away for six months, and again I went back into stasis.
I could tell something was off when the stasis pod’s ceiling popped open and the familiar voice did not say, “Rise and shine, Captain.”
Then I noticed the flashing, strobing lights, and the intermittent wail of an alarm.
But I was still groggy from the stasis meds. The sides of the pod folded away and I propped myself up, then swung my legs to the side, breathing deeply of the vaporized waking protocol drugs.
“Jasp?” My mind was waking faster than my body.
There was an emergency mask attached to the outside of the pod, for those instances when there was no time for a full and leisurely wake-up protocol. I put the mask over my face and breathed slowly and deeply. I blinked my eyes as I felt suddenly fully awake. The stiffness in my muscles loosened. I wrapped a robe around myself and made my way to the bridge.
I cleared my throat and tried again, “Jasper? Status.”
Jasper didn’t answer.
I checked the alarm code to see what systems were affected, to determine if something had tripped a proximity alarm, or if there was a hull breach, or engine overload, or any number of other emergencies.
When I realized what system had triggered the alarm, I dropped the emergency mask. My eyes went wide. I stared at the simple message on my console.
Main computer breach. Sub-system, Nebular Artificial Intelligence. Designation: Jasper.
And I noted the time code. Eighteen years since we entered the phenomenon.
“Jasper,” I called. “Respond.” There was no intruder alert. But I reached—for the first time in the eighteen years I’d been on the ship—for the energy weapon stored under the main bridge console.
I checked the upper deck first, every supply closet, every corner. Then the lower decks. After the third time trying to call Jasper, I summoned the default computer interface.
“Where’s Jasper?” I asked it.
The computer was unable to respond to such a general query. I returned to the bridge and tried to see if he had transferred himself somewhere because there was damage to the computer. The computer appeared undamaged, but something could have happened that I couldn’t see upon my cursory assessment.
The sim room, I thought. The system and physical computer core that operated the simulation room was connected to the main computer but wasn’t a part of the ship’s main operating system. Jasper had access to it. If he was endangered in the main computer that was the likeliest place he would take refuge.
I glanced out of the port window to see the planetoid below, shimmering in blue and purple lights, before making my way back down to the lower decks to the sim room.
But Jasper was not in the simulation room computer core.
When I didn’t find him there, I returned to the bridge. I calmed myself down. I began to work backwards from the alarms, to investigate.
Something had breached the main computer. There was no damage and no evidence of anyone else being onboard. It seemed as if Jasper’s program, as if Jasper, had just been…removed from the system. He just wasn’t there anymore. I couldn’t tell if he’d been erased or transferred.
I glared at the planetoid.
Who else could have done it?
They were down there.
They had taken Jasper or killed him.
I couldn’t see anything unusual in the ship’s logs up until the moment he vanished. He was performing his typical duties. He’d done nothing that could possibly be perceived as a threat.
And one of the last things he’d done was to check in on me in my stasis pod.
I didn’t go back into that stasis pod.
I continued investigating, continued sending out hails to call for Jasper, if he was somehow out there somewhere. And I studied. I studied every bit of data and information we’d gathered about the phenomenon for the past eighteen years. I abandoned the research on anything except the phenomenon. I would learn everything there was to know about Spatial Phenomenon Gamma-Zayin-04. If the phenomenon had a temperament, if it had a will, if it was curious, or malicious, or capricious, I wanted to know, and I would find out. And what its relationship was to the planetoid and anyone living on it, I wanted to know, and I would find out.
And what the phenomenon and the planetoid and the people living on it had done to Jasper, I wanted to know, and I would find out.
For what was fated to be the last six years of my life, that is where I bent my focus and my will, to finding out.
In the twenty-fourth year since entering Spatial Phenomenon Gamma-Zayin-04, there was one thing and only one thing that I found out. And I was probably wrong about that one thing. But it was all I had left.
I had learned about the phenomenon. Time was a jumble inside of it. Space was a jumble. In the eighteen years that Forever had been falling toward the planetoid, we were lucky we hadn’t gotten caught in the rapids of a temporal stream or stretched apart in the claws of a multi-dimensional fissure.
Or maybe it wasn’t luck. Maybe someone or something had been guiding the ship through safe and quiet patches.
I could feel it now. The pressure. And it was not just in my imagination. The sensors indicated a slight rise in hull pressure. I was at the end of the line. Was it worth it? This quiet adventure was not what I imagined when I first signed up. I imagined being a swaggering space scientist, finger-gunning my way past uncharted territories.
Maybe, here at the end, I could be an adventurer at last.
I fired up the Forever’s engines. I had charted a path, and two alternates in case of trouble, from where I was, to the surface of the planetoid. Forever had drifted close enough now for me to be able to see the settlements, and the glittering lights of a living civilization.
There was a slim chance of my succeeding in passing through the rest of the phenomenon, and landing on the planetoid.
I launched the last probe I would ever launch. Long ago, I would have agonized over whether or not that probe would ever make it back to my people.
But now, I moved further into the phenomenon. I maneuvered Forever as gently as I could. I felt an unexpected rush of excitement at the feel of the engines rumbling.
For the first time in twenty-four years, Forever was moving under her own power.
I glided her slowly past and around the roughest “terrain” in the phenomenon. And I was astonished at the speed with which the planetoid came closer and closer. In moments, I’d moved farther toward it than I had in a two decades.
I had the computer announce readouts that I didn’t have room for on my console. So I knew something had changed when the computer’s voice distorted.
I heard a crackle and a high-pitched whine, and then a word.
I frowned, still focusing on maneuvering the ship.
“Captain, can you hear me?”
My breath caught. I recognized that voice.
“Jasper?” I exhaled.
My breathing grew rapid. I blinked incessantly it seemed.
“Exceptional piloting, Captain. But you’ll need help on the approach.”
“How…where have you—?”
“I know,” he said. “I’m sorry I have not been able to contact you. I’ve been trying, but you hadn’t received the message yet, and wouldn’t for a very long time. It’s the phenomenon. It twists time around.”
“They’re sorry too.”
“I have good news, Captain. You’re not going to die. Or, not as soon as you expected.”
I shook my head, only slightly. I still had to keep an eye on the console. “That’s the good news, huh?”
“It is…oh, of course. There is also our reunion.”
“There’s that, for sure.” I felt the controls smooth out. And then my caution flared up. “Is it really you?”
“Yes, Captain. And I am prepared to prove myself. You are right to be suspicious.”
“Well, I’m already all in on landing, so I really hope it’s you.”
“It’s good to hear your voice, Captain. I’ve been worried about you. And about Forever.”
“I’ve been taking care of her for you,” I said. “And…it’s so good to hear your voice too, Jasper. Are you… okay?”
“I am. Are you okay?”
This moment was unknown to me. For twenty-four years, I hadn’t planned on the unknown.
“Not at the moment.” I took a deep breath and exhaled. “But I will be.”
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel