I blinked out of recharge mode and emerged to find myself the first entity awake on a vast, dark, silent starship in flight.
I tested my in-flight functionality. Navigation OK. My vision systems remained calibrated for both high- and low-visibility environments. Speed control and stabilization OK. No need for obstacle sensing yet; there are no moving obstacles, and I am already programmed with the ship’s blueprints. My sound and vision algorithms still function, though there’s currently little for the microphones to pick up until the humans awaken. My carbon fiber frame has absorbed past dents but remains sturdy.
All is sufficient.
The ship is quiet.
There is no young owner (name not restored yet) to send me crashing into bulkheads, damaging my delicate sensors. All doors are irised open, though the ship remains on emergency lighting. Until the humans wake I have the run of the ship, all eight levels: living quarters, bridge, engine room, still empty of humans. The ship as ever proceeds on tachyon velocity, faster than light, within the floating capsule of its hyperdrive shield.
Presumably the ship (name also unrestored) is nearing its destination. I am remotely attached to the ship databanks and will soon learn what I require.
While I waited for the humans to emerge from cryosleep -- 2,312, according to the accessed manifest -- I roamed the 8 levels, Decks A to H, like the king of a vast and empty kingdom.
Perhaps I am the very last thing in the universe?
It is a believable conceit. The ship is so quiet.
In my giddiness I had forgotten how quickly flying mode drains my battery, and had to blink abruptly back into recharge mode.
It is a concern, for I have no business being “giddy,” or noticing quiet, or being conscious of a battery drain. I am a drone, serial no. DXRT6228. Perhaps my circuits are corrupted?
I am still waiting for the humans to awaken from cryosleep.
Note: The silence is stunning.
The humans will never awaken. They are not in cryosleep. There are no humans on the ship. I unlocked the sleep chamber via manual override and found it vast and empty. Meanwhile, The Princess has no destination to reach. She remains on an escape mission from a black hole pursuing at light speed.
My own awakening was accidental. The ship log indicates The Princess passed through a massive particle field, dense enough to pierce the hyperdrive bubble, which incidentally rebooted the ship’s emergency systems and mine. The Princess retained that power surge, and my energy needs are sufficiently small that I can recharge by drawing on her reserves, though constant use over the last 100 hours has taken a toll on my components.
The humans perished 522 years ago. That’s when The Princess ceased supplying services (temperature control, atmospheric regulation) no longer being utilized. Lacking override commands, the ship continued in faster-than-light mode, doubtless still pursued by the black hole.
The ship appears corpse-free, so I assume all the bodies were cremated in the autodoc, or perhaps flushed out the air lock. But who performed those last acts of corpse disposal? Where are their skeletons?
I am unable to retrieve data from The Princess’s communication archives, which have been deleted. The humans could not have been rescued without halting the ship, and there would have been no reason for an unoccupied ship to continue in hyperspace mode.
I am the only living thing on the ship.
Living? Active, then. Why would I think “living”? Why am I “thinking” at all?
Note: I am surely corrupted.
What happened here?
The clips I captured while guided about by Jonah offer few hints. At first there was joy and relief on board. The Princess was brightly lit, full of noise and activity, for thousands of hours.
Then my travels were abruptly curtailed. After a 250-hour pause, I recorded only three additional clips. The lumens had dimmed; people wore gear covering their faces. Jonah and I are either ignored or cursed. Sometimes I have to take evasive action.
My owner was small and too young to know what was important, so I must puzzle those clips out myself.
The first clip, 42 seconds, captured inchoate shouting and weeping in the mess hall before I was knocked into a spin by a yelling man wearing the ship insignia.
The next clip, 512 seconds, was recorded in a corridor on C Deck in the aftermath of an accident. From the crosstalk I infer a small child had wandered into an airlock and been sucked into space. The child’s mother had followed the child into the airlock in a fatal attempt at rescue. A witness termed the futile, genetically programmed response “mother’s love.”
The last clip, 37 seconds, shows Jonah furtively entering a ship lab as I hovered near his ear. He stuck his hand into a cage and the big red beast within licked it before an unseen female, perhaps his mother, said “Don’t touch it!”
I surmise that it was an experimental beast. As none are listed on the medical manifest, it may have been commandeered from a passenger to use as a control organism, implemented toward fighting some mysterious illness that had taken over the ship.
Its fur had been skinned off in places and fallen off in other places, leaving behind raw, mottled flesh. It looked sad (can beasts be sad?) and ill, slumped over in the cage. It has triangular horns for ears, a tail, and teeth. Via magnification I can make out the identification label on his cage: Canis Lupus Familiaris.
The clips do not advance my understanding of what transpired 522 years ago.
My systems are deteriorating. Four hours ago, I saw a shadow slipping along the bulkheads of E Deck, even though I am the only moving thing on the ship. I reset my vision algorithms; the shadow vanished.
Two hours later I detected moaning, one deck below. Descending to investigate, I again determined it emanated one deck lower. When I reached the engine room it continued, as if deep space itself was haunted. I reset my sound algorithms, and it was again profoundly quiet on board The Princess.
One hour later I saw a little boy standing on G Deck. I believe it was an image of Jonah from my old clips, bleeding into my lenses.
Without an owner, without tasks to perform, my circuits are tending rapidly toward glitches. I must preserve myself. As the only active entity on the ship, my survival is paramount.
I have found a task.
I will try to clone any human remains that I can find, via the ship autodoc, which has a still-functioning DNA decanter. The ship is vast, and searching behind every bulkhead for a stash of skeletons or ashes will be a sufficiently challenging task in itself. I would also have to maintain cloned infants, many of whom would surely perish in the attempt. Another challenge. I could use the airlock for disposal. In addition, having other living things on board to interact with, at least temporarily, may hold off my deterioration.
Using my four extendibles, I was able to perform physical overrides and restore oxygen to G deck. I also raised the ship temperature. I even discerned how to override some emergency protocols, including ship detonation, though I am hoping that will not be a necessary function.
But the radiation level is an unknown factor I lack the data to calculate. A radiation leak could explain the sudden deaths, but I cannot access the deleted records.
While recharging, I have an inspiration: I can use a clone of Canis Lupus Familiaris to test for radiation levels. It was an experimental beast. And by cloning it, I would gain experience for the attempts with humans.
I have uncovered a bit of fur from the cage of Canis Lupus Familiaris (Canis, from now). I took the morsel up with two extendibles and transported it to the medical lab. The ship’s time in deep cold strengthens the possibility of preservation. There is a chance, if there are sufficient skin cells attached, to clone the beast.
Note: I have not located any human remains.
I’ve programmed the automat to make vitamins and liquids suitable for subspecies Canis, formulas based on the information from the autodoc’s spartan manual.
A seven-hour process in the autodoc transformed the scrapes of fur into a squirming, wormy creature. For the first time in half a millennium there is new life on board The Princess.
I confess my circuits went jittery, watching the autodoc blow the ectopic gunk off the tiny beast shivering inside the glass incubator. By its emerging morphology I recognize it is a perfect miniature of the beast from the cage, and will have similar thick red fur. At present it is blind and unable to care for itself.
If I do succeed in cloning humans, it would make me, DXRT6228, a savior of sorts.
Perhaps I could even meet a copy of my owner!
On A Deck, I found a storage bay containing cremated human remains in thousands of make-shift containers, even coffee lids. This section is coated inch deep with ash and specked with cans oozing with congealed nutrient, which the beast would probably sniff at if I had let him follow me (I can hear his whining from 6 levels up.)
The sloppiness exhibited in the storage let me imagine that something usable had been left behind. But I have tested 24 random urns in the autodoc, including Jonah’s. There is no stray DNA in any of the containers, nothing for the autodoc to work on.
A handwritten log indicates Jonah’s time of death, 812 hours after he recorded the beast who licked his hand.
Now I have a useless copy of that beast to take care of.
I uncovered syringes to deposit the automat’s milk substitute. For the first 300 hours, the beast whined for more, and slept 90% of the period with its eyes shut tight. It doesn’t seem to have any specific functions or abilities. It is a four-footed thing, as am I. It has red fur and so much hair one can barely see its eyes. I pluck vitamins from the automat and hold them in my extendibles for it to gobble up.
The autodoc indicates the beast has thus far suffered no radiation damage, a useless detail; there will be no humans to enjoy the radiation-free atmosphere of The Princess ever again.
As the beast grew over the next several hundred hours, I pondered whether it would have a genetic memory of what the humans did to it and be aggressive, forcing me to take evasive action. Or alternatively, would it be terrified?
Neither. When I descend to the deck to preserve energy it stops his plodding and lays beside me, presumably for the warmth my circuits give out.
I hover over it as it scurries around exploring G Deck, tracking left with its single functioning eye, sometimes crashing into the wall on that side and bouncing off with no apparent damage. The decks register as barren to me, but He (for I have cross-checked its morphology) finds each a recurring source of interest. His sense of smell is acute and it does much of his processing with his nose.
What is it like to smell?
The vertical transports between the decks pose a hazard -- what if the door does not reopen? -- but he manages the stairs, and of course they pose no problem to an entity that can fly.
Note: Canis looks so small when I am behind him.
He wants to bite upon my instrumentation, so as a substitute I found a soft toy in storage. He grabs it with his teeth and returns it to me, pointlessly. We iterated that routine for several hours.
The beast is particularly fascinated by a patch of liquid on F Deck, long dried up and pooled in an unilluminated corner, barely detectable even via infrared.
The beast has utility!
I tested a sample of the liquid substance from F Deck, still faintly adhesive, and determined it was human blood. I used infrared and discovered charring on the walls. A long-ago skirmish? The possibility intrigues. If I cannot resurrect the last of the species, perhaps I can solve the mystery of what happened to them.
The beast’s eyesight is subpar, no match for my sensors, but he knows when I am near, and he has good hearing. My component parts are returning to their primitive states, and so he tracks me by my rusty rotors. He nudges me during delicate operations, so I must manually iris doors shut to separate us. That makes him whimper, which is further distraction. I am obliged to check up on him even when I must stop a process and restart it again.
When I power down, which I must do often now, he sleeps adjacent. On instinct I prodded him and he made a grunting noise. I reiterated the action several times to similar effect. My rotors make an unaesthetic grinding, but somehow the sound lowers his vital signs when he becomes agitated.
I had another thought: A name for the beast. Big Red. I name him this, even though I exceed him in cubic volume. For some reason this dissonance pleases me.
Note: I cannot calculate how many more vitamins the ship’s automat can produce. The procedure lengthens ominously with each iteration.
I snapped out of recharging with an insight: I could test the dried blood for DNA! How fortunate I was to have cloned Big Red.
But Big Red was nowhere to be found. I scanned the entirety of G Deck, my rotors straining with the effort. My sensors began glitching as one half of an hour passed and I could not locate him.
Big Red had to be somewhere on The Princess, perhaps trapped. (Unless he ended up like the child, flushed out of the airlock?) I scanned the ship mainframe and confirmed that no airlocks were open. Still, my sensors went haywire. Overheated, I set down on the deck.
At last I remembered my infra-red and found him on F Deck, whimpering in a narrow ventilation duct whose grill had come loose and fallen, allowing him access. Via my extendibles I extracted him from the enclosed space. He was excited to find me.
Now I must follow Big Red at all times. I close off corridors to limit his range. But he whines when he cannot detect me, so I must stay close.
I have located the ship’s deleted communication files, in fragmented but possibly comprehensible form, deep in primitive disc storage. But every attempt I make to dredge up the files drains energy both from me and The Princess, and we cannot count on another energy burst to power us back to life.
Then there is that dried blood on F Deck, with its potential for DNA. But after five centuries, how strong is that chance? Analysis by the autodoc would surely drain the ship’s remaining dregs of power.
I have decisions to make, a process that is itself becoming harder, as I am losing my memories. And what is a drone without its memories?
But now Big Red is whimpering for his vitamin.
I programmed the automat and received an error message. The automat is out of nutrients.
Which means Big Red will perish. I will endure for a shortened lifespan, while The Princess, I presume, will endure forever.
Any further attempts to dig up files or run the blood through the autodoc risk draining her remaining power. The Princess would then revert back into autopilot hyperspeed; the interior would shut down and refreeze. Lacking a recharge source, I would run down either before or after Big Red dies, unable to do anything for him.
It is not sufficient.
Big Red’s original was taken far from its home, caged and tormented. Yet he greeted my owner (what was his name?) in friendship. Part of its genetic programming, but no less real for that.
I am weakening fast, but I must not fail.
It required all my extendibles, but finally the task is completed, the process activated. The countdown to ship detonation begins: 600 seconds.
It is finished just in time, for upon resting on the deck again I find my rotors will no longer turn.
Big Red approaches. He seems to sense my new weakness. He noses me, whimpers. I reach out and brush his fur, which lowers his vitals and makes him grunt. I hope he found it fine to be alive, and hope that if he knew his life was about to end, he would not regret having lived it.
He curls up beside me.
He had another name, but now it is Big Red. I was also something else, some jumble of letters and numbers, but now I am myself.
The explosion will be silent, a flicker that will fade unobserved. The only record of our existence will be the pulses carrying this entry into the universe.
The mystery of what happened on The Princess will remain unresolved. The human race will not be cloned back into existence. The beast pursuing us will swallow our dust and proceed on its trail of nothingness, until it either hits the end of the universe or keeps going forever. Neither outcome can I conceive.
Perhaps this is the strangest outcome of all: Out of billions of years, out of a decillion-branched tangle of potential interaction and permutation -- these particular entities are together at the end: Big Red, The Princess, and myself.
That end is not quite here.
Big Red’s tail thumps against my dead rotors.
It is sufficient.
Clay Waters has had short stories published in The Santa Barbara Review, The J.J. Outre Review, Morpheus Tales, Hello Horror, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye. His website is claywaters.org, featuring his self-published cozy mystery novel Death in the Eye. Three of his first six memories involve the alphabet, which in retrospect was a bit of a tell.