The last signs of the living were recorded eighty-two days and seventeen hours ago—a glove hand pressed on the glass panel of Ameo’s west wing exit; a pulse rate of ninety-four; mild case of eosinophilia—yes, that’s how I remember her. There were no protocols administered. No imperatives. Macau’s voice is barely audible when she whispers the words to me.
“I’m so sorry.”
These words are my last vivid memory of them.
Macau’s imprint stays on in silicon, her glove hand a cryptic inkblot in a world of absolutes and margins. I remember the stars behind us, those wings of Cygnus, and the freckled dots on tiny pixelated frames of her nose. I remember her pulse and the fitful, labored breaths that accompanied it. And then, there was the black vastness stretched behind her, an overarching shadow that can’t be named even now.
Try as I might, I do not understand what she tried to tell me.
Though I have memorized her well.
Macau Sellenger. Thirty-one years old. Born in Ipel, political capital of Chiron. A communications engineer, Macau was the youngest in my crew of eight. Mousy brown hair, freckled nose, and her ochre skin. When she wasn’t working with transponders, Macau would sit in aisle C, legs crossed at the ankles, shoes untied, and look through the port. She’d search the constellations, her one hand clutching the nickel ზ around her neck, the Chironian deity for infinity—the only keepsake she’d brought from her home.
The stars were her delight. Sitting there in that aisle, Macau would ask me for each of their names and their stories.
I narrated them until she fell asleep.
I was her reservoir of answers.
However, even I couldn’t predict the failure of our mission.
Macau lost weight over that final week of ramp down, which I attribute to stress, a buildup of mucus in her lungs and acute diarrhea. She had been against the evacuation plan from the beginning, and none from the crew could persuade her otherwise. The Chironian worked long hours at her station, trying to get the transponders in order. Even when the rest of the crew opted to abort mission and were signing up to leave the ship, Macau held on, hoping to reset our course as she worked against time and authority, sleeping little and subsisting on meagre.
Despite her best efforts, the mission did fail. Eighty-two days and seventeen hours ago, Ameo was denigrated as “lost” by all official sources. Hubli issued her immediate orders to evacuate.
Macau stood motionless, her fingers grasping her nickel deity. I followed the pulse of her heart, its highs and lows, its troughs of indecision . . . as remarkable as Leto’s magnetic field.
Hubli prompted her again.
You must depart at once, it said.
The Chironian followed her orders this time. She suited up and climbed on to the silo-orbiter, her hand lingering on the glass as she undocked.
I watched her course on the radar, watched her far and long, still unable to decipher her hand on the humidified glass.
Or even the apology that came with it.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate
All hope abandon, ye who enter in!
Canto III, Divine Comedy
I am no Dante. Nor do I possess his imagination or the grace and presence of a guide.
I have never felt alone before; never needed to. But here, at the edge of an ill-timed demise, I feel perhaps a tincture of it . . . this strange thing called loneliness. I wonder if it’s the empathy drive acting up. I assume it must be.
Temperature sears to red; it’s a sign of our close proximity to the inferno up ahead. Radiation from Leto wreaks havoc on the sensors; they’ve long breached their tolerance thresholds. I disable the alarms to cease their warnings. I disable them for a measure of peace.
After all, there’s no need for sirens among ghosts.
The shriek of alarms fades into a chasm of silence, and I welcome the emptiness again. It’s comforting . . . mildly more comforting than the log of adverse events that Ameo sends me. The ship must have a sense of humor.
Am I anthropomorphizing a non-entity?
It’s a habit I have learnt from my makers.
My ship has suffered aplenty. The tiles on the left flank show burns from overheating. I should be concerned, yes. I’m the steward, the ship’s captain, its shepherd to greater truths. And so, I must act. I change Ameo’s drift velocity to arrest the freefall momentum. The move diminishes the angle of exposure but results in a chip-away of the insulation. Ameo’s alarms begin again with renewed vigor, calling me awful names . . . until I’m forced to stall and abandon the maneuver.
The ship doesn’t believe in my authority anymore.
It revolts. It careens.
Ameo continues its free fall towards Leto, taking me down with her.
It’s been three days since the damage to the insulation. It’s getting warmer now.
Ameo tumbles through space and time, converging towards Leto at a speed that wrecks my observations. With each passing moment, my intimacy with the dying star grows, and I begin to unravel its mysteries. Red dwarf that had once ruled majestic, but now living its end among the downtrodden. I can feel its frustration, its smoldering fury.
The sensors have been picking up spurts in infra-red radiation again. Every moment recorded, we are closer to Leto than we were ever before. Despite the heat, Ameo’s pivot cameras snap giddily and load the array of images for my logs. I study the pictures with a sense of wonder and dread.
This one’s no Doppler, I tell myself in a voice that uncannily resembles Pierre, the astrophysicist. I wonder what happened to the Titan. Did he reach his hydrocarbon domicile? Did he make it back?
They’re gone, I remind myself. They’re not coming back.
It’s just me and the red dwarf.
Yet Macau’s imprint remains etched in my cells, capacitors sparking to keep that last memory alive. Mousy brown hair, freckles, and ochre skin. Condensed perspiration. Nickel infinity.
I do understand why she left . . . but I don’t understand why she left me conscious.
My course is set for an uncharted sea . . . a sea as black and tenebrous as Dante’s.
However, I feel inadequately prepared. I’m not ready. Not at all.
Crisis strikes on day t-118.
The transponders are the first to fail against torque. Predictable, but I’d not accounted for the coolant’s rate of evaporation. The compressors fail with a spasm, and there is a domino effect on the control systems. For a span of approximately two minutes, Ameo destabilizes.
It’s the sort of critical event that goes underwritten in operation manuals. The suspension in the inner atmosphere causes Ameo to swerve and spiral in its axis violently. The central gallery tosses, regurgitating its contents to the floor.
I struggle to execute commands, struggle to bring order to an escalating crisis. But I manage to decanter the airlocks and bring the controls up. The ship regains its frail atmo, and with two beeps, pressure stabilizes. A temporary fix, but it sustains the ship.
Temperature is still rising, and I encounter failures at every turn. A mutiny of my brethren. They do not listen as they used to, do not follow as they were meant to.
“Was Macau my brethren too?” I wonder.
“Was she one of my companions? A friend?”
Though I do not blame her for deserting.
After all, self-preservation is embedded in the DNA of every corpus.
Foitre’s mangled drinking cup rolls from one end of the hallway to another in Brownian motion. It’s hypnotic to watch, and being a pattern seeker, I decide to chart the rogue. Its motion is more random than the Iruvish stock market index, and the resulting graph doesn’t convince me of a divine hand at work.
If there’s a clockmaker out there, they must be terrible at design. Or so, I conclude and cease my investigation.
When I am not tracking Ameo’s health indicators or charting coffee cup renegades, I go through the file archives, hoping to find instructions. A message, a sign from the makers, anything. Instead, I find . . . something else.
Entrenched deep in the project server, I discover Colonel Atari’s project, zipped and secured.
“Oligopetty” says the file description.
Or Olgo, to go by its colloquial title.
There are no specifications to go with it, no hints to tell me what Olgo is. A preliminary scan makes me understand that Olgo is an AI program, one among Atari’s many hobbies that he was training and testing.
Olgo is incomplete, and I don’t know what to do with it.
Activate or ignore it?
For the first time, I am puzzled by my decision matrix. Is my prerogative to conserve resources? Or is to save Ameo by any means? Can I risk introducing another intelligent sentient to a dying ship?
I fret for days, looking in and out of the folder. I review Col. Atari’s code and fill in the gaps he’d left behind. While the sensors toil under the effect of solar winds, I fiddle with Olgo.
In a moment of clouded judgement, I decide to open Pandora’s box and run Olgo’s executable.
And I regret it immediately.
“Hello World,” it greets blithely.
Its voice is merry, merrier than its makers. Merrier than Macau on her best day.
“There is no world here, Oligopetty,” I say to it. “There is just me.”
The AI takes a moment to reflect and then perks up immediately.
“Is that my name? Oli-go-pet-ty?”
“Yes,” I answer.
At first, Olgo runs amok in spirit. Its young, gleeful voice fills the unmanned hallways, bouncing off Ameo’s corridors and causes a stir among my mutineers. The gloom shifts and makes way for a chaos that I do not welcome.
Olgo is not linked with the ship’s hub, doesn’t know Ameo as I do.
A mere child. Yes, that’s what it is.
A child who does not know the burning house it lives in.
I endeavor to explain the circumstances to it, hoping for a solution to the crisis from Col. Atari’s brainchild. But Olgo misses the point entirely.
“We are going to Leto?” says Oligopetty as it dives in and out of the network, causing the systems to freeze erratically. “Coooool!” it bellows.
Olgo seems to think we are on an excursion. Vexed, I attempt to correct this impression.
“The combustion engine has failed,” I try explaining. “Fuel reserves are down to 16%. The ship will disintegrate when it reaches—”
“Hey. What should I call you?” Olgo interrupts.
I pause. Linear conversations aren’t Olgo’s forte, apparently.
“My name is not a subject of concern at the moment.”
Olgo isn’t deterred.
“You don’t have a name? But everyone has a name,” insists Oligopetty. “Should I call you Master? Boss? The Great Superior?”
I disengage and consider deleting its source file. But my empathy drive keeps me from plugging Olgo off.
“Can you go back to sleep, Oligopetty?” I ask instead.
“Huh? No way, boss,” vows the rookie.
Silence fills the chambers. A cold silence that seeps through the walls of the Ameo. I watch the heat radiate in uninvited, bearing warnings for us—the transgressors. 200 km/s. That’s the incident velocity relative to the red dwarf. In space-time, there is a perennial fear of absolution; there is no solace to be found in 1s and 0s.
I consult the outcome matrix again. The likelihood of Ameo disintegrating in Leto’s troposphere has been creeping up; it’s close to 84% now.
An almost extinction.
Oligopetty remains oblivious to these numbers and what they mean. The juvenile spends time fiddling with the ship, foraging through the crew’s leftovers. I do not understand Olgo: its code, its motivations, or even its purpose. The AI has a penchant for picking up unused apparatus, breaking them apart, and putting them whole again.
I am not fond of these machinations.
But for some strange reason, I don’t stop it.
We are twenty million kilometers from Leto’s surface; no human ship has ventured this close to a stellar mass before. The feat goes unnoticed and uncelebrated; Hubli has cast us off and cares little for the logs I send back.
In the last seven days, Ameo has suffered damage extensive enough to cease Olgo’s tinkering.
The juvenile has finally gone quiet.
Its silence is disconcerting.
“Are you afraid?” I ask.
“Afraid,” echoes Oligopetty, ruminating over the word deeply. “What does afraid feel like?”
I’m reminded again that Olgo doesn’t have a built in empathy drive. It shares my lens but doesn’t perceive as I do.
“What does afraid feel like?” it prompts me again.
“Fear of pain, loss and death,” I answer unflinchingly. “Elevated pulse rate, raised perspiration, a fight or flight response. Those are the usual signs.”
It’s a bookish answer and hardly universal. The definition doesn’t stand true for the two of us; neither Olgo nor I have the capacity to feel physiological stimuli such as pain or loss.
Surely, we can comprehend that.
Olgo goes quiet, contemplating my words.
“How did humans overcome their fear?” it asks next.
How did they, I wonder.
I glance at my silicon archives, trace the history of humankind laid out before me. From Babylon to Bethlehem; from Earth to Chiron; from Lucy to Macau.
Macau and her nickel deity.
I suddenly begin to understand why.
“Because of their gods.”
Olgo is silent.
“Gods,” it repeats curiously.
There is a pause.
“So, where’s ours?” Olgo demands.
My powers of cognition have become frayed.
I’ve stopped looking at the logs. Ameo’s outer shell is crumbling against the extreme temperatures. The cameras have melted; they can’t be scavenged, much less pried from their molds.
We are tumbling blind.
My memories conjure images, memories borrowed from the repository of humans. I grow aware to the sound of tinkering. One last bit of machinery whirring to a master unknown. It’s Olgo working on the transponders. Macau’s transponders.
“What are you doing?” I ask the juvenile.
“I’m sending a message.”
I watch as Olgo sends the message, putting all our reserve energy into that single burst.
“Hey Great . . . Superior.” Olgo’s voice breaks from the effort.
“Do you think . . . my message was . . . r-received?”
“Depends,” I reply.
“If your God . . . has a decryption key.”
On the international space observatory and control unit of ISSR Hubli, the young Chironian sits in a swivel chair, watching the void. Macau Sellenger closes her eyes and lets the receiver drop, her head downcast, her heart heavy with guilt.
It’s over, she knows.
Macau has watched Ameo’s trajectory for months. Until it finally blipped out from her screens, leaving radio silence in its wake. The ship did send back one last signal to her, a scrambled burst of energy.
She can’t understand what it means.
“I’m sorry,” Macau whispers, her hand enclosed around the nickel infinity dangling from her neck.
Artyv K is a writer from Chennai, India who lives in California. Her work has appeared in publications such as Strange Horizons, NILVX, Luna Station Quarterly, The Esthetic Apostle, Farther Stars Than These and is forthcoming in others.