Bewildering Stories

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An earlier version of this story appeared in issue 52.

by Paul C. Drew

“The use of an automated system for the Cheshire, as we are all well aware, has been ruled out. Projections indicate that we would have to develop a near self-aware system, an Artificial Intelligence, in order for the Cheshire to manage the variables along its course.”

Dan’s eyes opened, he allowed his vision to adjust slowly to the bright light that filtered through the blinds before he stretched each limb in turn, easing out the tightness of sleep before he pulled himself from bed.

The cold floor tiles forced him to jump from foot to foot for a minute as he walked into the bathroom, where he created his own small patch of warmth on the stone. The shower motor hummed to life; and he took a moment to make sure the water was hot before he removed his nightclothes. Sunlight fell on his back from a window; the warmth was a refreshing counterpoint to the icy cool of the floor.

This day Dan made sure he was perfectly clean; no inch of his body went unchecked as he washed, not a single joint was spared a vigorous scrub under the shower. Today might be the last chance he’d have to shower for some time.

Because today was Exodus day.

Dan’s heart rate jumped and his mind wandered as he contemplated his mission, a mix of exhilaration and fear kept his thoughts from the task at hand. Before he even realised it, Dan was dry and had slipped a bathrobe over his shoulders.

Breakfast was next on the list of to dos, and he made sure it was a good one — a classic English one. He relaxed for a moment, content to let the food settle before he carried on with his mental itinerary.

Dan cast a brief eye over everything that he was about to leave behind; he allowed himself a moment to quickly check that all was tidy. None of it was going to be seen or used by him again, but he liked to think that the next people to live in Dan Mapper’s house would remember him as a hero, not a messy housekeeper. Only once satisfied that the house was spotless did Dan return to his room to change.

The deep blue cotton flight suit was laid out on a table, the RSEF badge and Union Jack emblazoned proudly on each shoulder. Both emblems had been sewn on carefully, almost lovingly by Dan’s own hand. He tucked his identification tag under the zipper, and only left a small gap open above his breastbone. Socks, boots and light over-jacket followed, each new and spotlessly clean.

Dan checked his reflection in the mirror, smiled proudly at the dashing figure that looked back at him.

“Everyone in a uniform looks dashing, you idiot.” He told his mirror image. Happily, he wasn’t convinced, and fired off a brisk salute to the man he knew would soon be a household name.

“Very good captain.” He smirked, spun on his heel and marched towards the front door.

Dan stopped at the doorframe and gazed back over his shoulder at the place he had called home for the past five years.

“See you around.” He said to the ghosts of memory, and strode into the sunlight.

“We are left with two options ladies and gentlemen, we can post a crew aboard the Cheshire — removing the need for advance computer control altogether. We would need a waking crew of at least four, with replacement crew members held in cold storage and awoken every ten years. As you have probably surmised, this would require forty handovers of crew, meaning that one hundred and sixty stasis pods would be taken up with crew alone. We would then need to add living quarters and space for the active crew.”

The Audi purred to life as Dan turned the ignition key, and quickly tapped in the code to unlock the security systems. He let it idle for a moment, happy to allow the car to warm up before the long drive to the base.

Dan realised that he had never taken the time to enjoy these things; every action for the past five years had been part of a routine. Ever since Beth had left, his life had become grey, dull and without real purpose. She had opposed his volunteering for this mission since the start, even though she had been offered a place on the expedition.

“I like it here, I don’t want to leave — I know where I am and who I am. More importantly I know who you are, what guarantee have I got that you will still be Dan when we land?” She had shouted during the most heated of their arguments.

“You’ll be the same person there too — both of us will be, come on babes, it’ll be whole new start.” He had protested. “I know that it’s safe...”

“I don’t give a shit, Dan. I’m not going. I’ll be at my mother’s for the next three days. Come for me only if you’ve backed down from the mission — if I don’t see you then... I’ll likely never see you again.”

Dan wondered how she would feel when she did see him again; plastered on every television channel, his name spoken on every radio station, his last moments before launch captured for the front covers on magazines. Anger swamped his mind for a moment, anger at Beth, himself and the force. It took a minute to calm himself down.

A plane rumbled overhead, a Boeing freighter with overly large gravity projectors angled for landing. Dan realised he had been daydreaming, the display showed that the car was running within acceptable limits. He gunned the engine and pulled off, the sudden acceleration pushed him back into his seat briefly.

Four RAF military bikers were waiting just outside, their blue lights flashing and their holstered side arms a clear warning that their charge would be protected with lethal force. Dan accelerated gently, he was tempted to tear away from his escort, but his mission was far too important for any self-indulgent frivolity, and he knew it.

The streets were unusually quiet, only the occasional car driving along slowly in the distance. The Audi and its escorts hit every set of lights on green, and Dan wondered if the roads were always this quiet, this early. For the past two and a half years he had been working on a late shift, leaving for work mid-afternoon and returning at midnight.

At the junction to the motorway, the Audi pulled dangerously close into the roundabout. And for a moment it felt as though he would loose control, but the car’s traction systems kicked in and the car pulled off — slightly faster than before — towards the motorway.

Dan took a deep breath; with the most important event of his life now hanging in the balance every semi-dangerous event set his teeth on edge.

The four escort bikes were behind him, dwindling slightly as they struggled to keep up with the powerful sports car. Dan was unworried though, he would only spend a few minutes on the motorway before he pulled into the base. Once under the watchful eye of the RAF security he would be safe, at least for a time.

A huge juggernaught passed by on the other side of the crash barrier, causing the car to vibrate as it did so.

Dan smiled. No more trade lorries, no more ‘same old, same old’, goodbye stale smog, hello air — everything would be new and fresh. He had tried to imagine what life would be like beneath a different sun, if everything would look the same when it was covered by an alien sky.

As Dan approached the security gate, his thoughts turned more sombre. He wondered if he would meet someone new, if anyone could lift him as Beth had — or if love would be different that far away from the home of humanity.

The gates flashed overhead and the bike escort peeled away, they turned tightly before heading back towards the motorway. Dan shot a wave through the window at them, before he drove on towards the hanger.

“The second option is a biological interface, a link between pilot and systems. We shall hook a human pilot into a neural interface; He or she would take direct control of the ship’s systems, as well as being able to make necessary decisions we may not have foreseen. The Cheshire will become an extension of the pilot’s body, he or she will be able to control every aspect of the ship with mental commands. The body of the pilot could be supported for an indefinite period of time, using the recently perfected mitosis impeding techniques. Thus allowing one person to command the entire journey without rest or disruption, caused by change of crew.”

The G-7 transport plane had been rolled onto the runway before Dan had even parked up, and the four grav’ projectors were angled down for a vertical takeoff. The cargo hold would be full of a few final essential supplies that were being transported, along with him, to the shuttle launch in Venezuela. This was his last-ever flight, his final hours on earth would be used to take the cargo to the shuttle Bristol. He wasn’t sure what he was to transport, only that the entire mission launch depended upon it; he had to make sure that it reached the launch base safely. Along with his living, breathing body of course.

The seven-hour flight was scheduled to be fairly uneventful, a simple one way trip. Though fear of terrorist attack was still fairly high, so a set of combat ready autodrones would fly with him. And the course plotted for him would mean that seventy percent of his trip would be spent at near orbital altitudes, well out of range of ground fire of any kind.

Security was tight on the base, Dan noted that only a few sentries with rifles manned the watch posts dotted around. Anyone that approached within a few hundred meters of the G-7, other than Dan, would receive ‘shoot on sight’ treatment.

For a brief second the Royal Space Expedition pilot felt ill at ease, disjointed and lost from his surroundings. But the sensation passed quickly and Dan put it down to nerves and excitement. He resumed performing the pre-flight checks on the transport, including one last inspection on his cargo. The containers looked like egg boxes to Dan’s eye, black ceramic-egg boxes. Hundreds of fist-sized ovals all linked together in a square tray.

“Perhaps I’m taking the omelette stock.” He said to himself.

He ran his hands over the thousands of tiny metal ovoids, each contained some resource vital to the Cheshire program. They would hold genetic material for breeding animals once colonisation was underway, the minerals necessary to drive the fusion reactors for the colony’s power or any one of another hundred invaluable resources.

Though it was not just the lives of the colonists that relied upon the safe transport of the materials he was now checking; Dan’s continued happiness rested upon them too. There was no return for Dan, he was to pilot the Cheshire to the distant system of Moore — named after the twentieth century astronomer who inadvertently discovered it. Once they arrived all two and half thousand metric tonnes of the Cheshire would settle on the third planet in the system, becoming a base of operations for the newly formed colony. And one of those colonists would be Dan.

Exact plans hadn’t been made for his occupational call once the Cheshire made ground fall. Each colonist had needed to pass strict requirements to be accepted in the program; Dan had been a pilot willing to undergo the neural link surgery, and once planet-side he had no doubt he would find some role to fill that would earn him acceptance with his fellow pioneers.

Beth hadn’t so much disagreed with moving to another world, as she had with the neural link. She had been convinced that it was dangerous, certain Dan would be killed by it, or that when disconnected he wouldn’t be the Dan she knew.

“The subject would need to be taught how to pilot the Cheshire, every aspect of the crafts control must be ingrained into the pilots mind. The pilot will be hooked into the command module of the Cheshire, gaining direct control over its systems. The subject will — out of necessity — be suspended in a sensory deprivation tank, and the neural interface will be linked directly into the brain stem. Which of course brings us onto the subject of the interface, and the necessary adjustments the pilot will need make in order to withstand the trip.”

Take off from Saint Athens had been remarkably uneventful, the four drones had kept pace perfectly and the warm summer sun warmed his Dan’s face through the thick carbon-film glass. There were no signs that anything shared his airspace for over six miles, not even a cargo freighter. It became apparent that the sky had been cleared for him, and him alone. He took a moment to luxuriate in the peace he had been provided with, and enjoyed the solitude in a place neither man nor beast could touch him.

The colour of the surrounding sky began to deepen in hue, slowly faded from blue to deep purple. Dan felt as though he watched night approach at high speed, or that his entire life had slowed to a crawl whilst the universe carried on around him.

Stars started to speckle the sky, bright pinpoints of light that covered everything in vision like a blanket of broken glass. The G-7 rolled slowly in the low gravity, lined up slowly with the far horizon and accelerated forward. Grav’ projectors were fairly inefficient outside of a gravity well, but the slight pull still present from earth was enough to send the transport hurtling towards its destination. With seven hours until the pull of gravity exerted itself on Dan’s body once more, he made the decision to enjoy the last hours of his time on, or near, Earth.

Zero-gee movement had never caused him problems, he had taken to it like a fish to water and now floated around the small cockpit contentedly. Dan grinned; he probably looked like one of the original astronauts from the old flatscreen films, larking around like a child with a new toy.

The squeal of the proximity sensors snapped Dan to attention, he reached his chair in two brief strokes and strapped in quickly. The sensors showed a few hundred alerts, items that could be mistaken for missiles or drones that blocked the G-7’s path. It only took a moment for Dan to read the displays, take note of density and position and reach a simple conclusion. He cursed before he brought up the command console for the drones, and stared with narrowed eyes at the computational algorithms that scrolled in front of his face.

After the third suppression wars between the far west and European states, sub-orbital earth had become a dangerous place. Both sides had destroyed spy and defence satellites, each had attempted to cripple the space and intelligence services of the other. The debris from those satellites had mostly dissipated; either burned up and fallen into the earth’s atmosphere or sent spinning into the deeps of space. Some remained in near geo-synchronous orbit and though it would eventually fall to earth, it was now a danger to the G-7 and its cargo. The debris itself was moving at a negligible speed, a few meters a second at most; unfortunately the G-7 was moving at near two hundred and thirty meters a second. Should any of the metallic waste impact with the transport, Dan would be lucky to survive the initial strike.

The drones started to fire on the floating scrap, they moved in close and washed them with plasma. A lane of clear space began to appear, just wide enough to manoeuvre the G-7 through. Dan calculated the craft’s speed and vector, beads of sweat on his brow as he brought up trajectory estimates. If the drones had missed a piece of debris even a centimetre wide, it would punch through the hull like a hot knife through butter.

The G-7 started its run down the clear channel, ionised metals heated the craft’s skin to dangerous temperatures as they passed around it. Dan’s attention was caught by a warning message; one of the drones was overheating dangerously. His eyes widened in realisation, the drone was directly in the transport’s path and the fragments from its destruction would be just as dangerous as that it had cleared earlier.

Fingers flew across the command console; the drone turned on its axis and accelerated ahead and left. Dan grabbed the controls, waited for the drone to go and prayed that the debris belt would end soon. A flash of light alerted Dan to the defence drone’s obliteration, just as he left the projected debris field. The G-7’s chassis groaned as Dan pushed the nose down.

“C’mon, c’mon!” He said, as he watched two sets of numbers slowly count down. One was pitch in degrees he needed to reach and the other was time until impact. The position counter hit zero and Dan fully reversed the gravity projectors, pulling the G-7 toward the planet as fast as possible. The force of the manoeuvre pushed him back into his seat, yet his eyes didn’t waver from the sensor data being displayed on the heads-up display.

“It has been pointed out that the pilot risks severe psychological trauma on this journey, due in main to the extended period of time he would need to be conscious. We cannot take the risk that the Cheshire’s pilot could become insane, for the Cheshire itself would then be at risk. The pilot shall only have limited cognitive command of the systems; we shall alter his or her perception of time and events. The entire four century travel period will pass in little more than a few days within the pilot’s scope of perception, barely aware that they are controlling the colony ship within their subconscious.”

Dan smiled to himself as he preformed a systems check, everything was well within operational guidelines and his cargo was undamaged. The worst that had happened was that the target symbol of the RAF had blistered slightly in the heat, a price Dan was happy to pay in exchange for a safe landing. He blew out a long slow breath, and felt the tension drain from his shoulders as he did so.

A few moments later and the navigational systems reported that he should start his descent towards the planet; the landing site was only an hour away from their current position. With one last glance at the status display for reassurance, Dan nosed the craft down and angled the gravity projectors for descent. Local weather feed reported that the sky was clear, the wind speed less than seven kilometres an hour and the temperature at thirty-two degrees centigrade.

“Perfect.” Dan said.

Dan glanced through the window, and watched the stars spin past his field of view for a brief moment before he returned his attention to the multitude of instruments. The G-7 entered the atmosphere at high speeds and the re-entry could be deadly if he was not careful, his gaze flicked constantly to the consoles. Dan reached over and tapped a command into a console, behind him the webbing that held the cargo down tightened, to protect the materials against vibration.

A small view popped up, informing Dan that the computer had sent a coded signal to inform the base he was landing. Dan barely noticed it, the grav’ projectors felt sluggish to his commands and he fought to keep the G-7’s decent stable. He quickly called up an atmospheric display, his eyes narrowed at the unusual wind patterns that were evident. If the local weather station hadn’t reported otherwise, he would have sworn that there was a tornado on the way. Dan made a few quick adjustments to the projectors and concentrated on the descent, nervous sweat dripped into his eyes as he did so.

Wispy clouds raced past the windows, tiny trickles of moisture appeared as he passed through them. The G-7 shuddered violently for a few seconds, and Dan shouted in anger and fear – as he tried to force the transport into safety. The shuddering stopped and left only the occasional dip in flight caused by turbulence to show there was any weather disturbance at all.

“Who’s the man?” Dan whispered to himself, with a smirk.

He closed down the orbital detail screen and brought up the local navigation map: to check the last half an hour of flight plan before touch down.

“The unfortunate drawback of the neural link, combined with the stasis procedure, is that the volunteer will likely never be able to leave the pilot chamber. The volunteer will have suffered severe physical degradation over the flight period, so severe in fact that to leave the support unit would kill them. This information would need to be kept from the pilot, as whoever was linked into the ship could generate suicidal or neurotic tendencies — Again, something we wish to avoid as this would likely place the Cheshire in dire peril.”

The Venezuelan landing site was basic; the hard-packed earth was dotted with patches of grass that flattened beneath the field created by the gravity projectors. Dan eased the G-7 down carefully, to ensure that no hidden dips in the ground would unbalance the transport as it landed. He had switched over from the barometric altimeter to a far more accurate laser reflector, the centimetres until he touched ground were hovering just below the window in neon red. Dan concentrated as the numbers slowly ticked down towards zero, checked the micro-topography chart every few seconds to ensure he was still making a stable landing.

The counter hit zero and a gentle thud sounded through the transport. Dan let out a long sigh of relief and released the straps that had held him to the chair for seven hours. A glint of light caught his eye as he twisted to stand and he straightened in apprehension. The Bristol stood proud against the launch gantry three miles away, the shuttle’s huge delta wing configuration attached to a solid fuel rocket. The Cheshire’s position was far outside of the Earth’s gravity well, the shuttles grav’ projectors would be useless and the solid fuel rocket would take him the rest of the way.

Dan grinned like a boy and rubbed his hands together briskly, before reaching over to activate the cargo ramp release. The hum of the hydraulic system reverberated through to the cabin as Dan made a final shutdown check. Satisfied with the readouts, he squeezed past the pilot’s seat and opened the hatchway into the cargo hold.

The bright midday sun streamed in through the open hatch, causing the metal cargo containers to glisten as though covered in ice.

Dan slid a control pad from a bracket on the wall beside the door, and activated the loading rig — the automated flatbed that would unload the packages and prepare them for loading into the Bristol later. The long tank treads squeaked as they twisted on the metal floor, the lifting forks slid into the containers with pinpoint precision. Dan watched the rig carefully, stopping it occasionally to check it had loaded a crate correctly, or that nothing had worked its way into the treads.

The last crate was deposited carefully onto the ground, and the Dan moved the rig outside the carefully arranged semi-circle of cargo containers. Soon transport trucks would arrive to carry the pallets to the Bristol, along with Dan. He slotted the pad back into its niche and decided to get some air.

“May as well be the last colonist to breath earth air.” He murmured and stretched his back out after the exhausting journey.

With a smile on his face Dan stepped out of the G-7’s cargo hold.

“It has been decided, therefore, that after the four-century journey preformed by the Cheshire and its passengers — the pilot will be allowed to disconnect from the systems. Life support could keep the volunteer alive indefinitely, but we feel that it is very unlikely he or she would wish to do so. The pilot will be allowed to self-terminate once it is confirmed that all the colonists and supplies are unloaded, and all control of the stationary Cheshire will be turned over to the colonists. I need not remind you, ladies and gentlemen, that all the information in this meeting is classified as secret. No one may know of the decisions or technology discussed between us.”

The effort of opening his eyes was colossal, his eyelids felt as though they had been wielded together. He lifted his arm to rub his face, in an attempt to un-gum his lashes. Yet even the effort required to move hand was immense; the area around him felt thick.

After a few minutes effort Dan finally reached up and wiped his eyes, pulled the lids apart slightly. His eyes flickered open in alarm, a rust red film blanketed his vision –- he was suspended in an expanse of ochre liquid.

He tried to remember where he was, what had happened. The last memory he could dredge up was stepping from the G-7 onto the landing site, ready to be transported to the Bristol.

‘Where am I?’ he thought. Dan looked at his own hand for a moment, the limb looked skeletal. A screen suddenly appeared in front of his face, a small image of Moore’s third planet and a topographic map that displayed his location. The realisation that the map was displayed on his own retina, rather than a holographic display, came at the same time as the memory of the last month on Earth.

There had been no drive to the base, no G-7 flight. He had spent a month in isolated quarantine; the last month at home had been spent in preparation for the flight. They had shuttled him to the Cheshire, showed him the room from which he would control the ship and then taken him into the operation room...

Dan slowly reached back with his hand, his fingers touched the wrinkled flesh at the back of his head then slid down towards his neck. At the base of his cranium Dan’s fingers struck a solid mass, a thick twisted bundle of metal and wire that connected directly to his brain stem — like a cobra trying to engulf his head.

Dan’s heart fluttered madly, he reached forward and his fingers touched a solid yet invisible wall. The carbon-film tank, which had kept his body safe through four hundred years of travel, was now his prison.

‘What is our status?’ he thought. He knew the neural link would bring up the desired information.

A list of systems and processes appeared in place of the map, all systems showed at safe levels and the cryogenic pods had been cycling through their activate sequence for over twelve hours — nearly half the colonists were already awake on their new world.

Dan forced a smile, though the effort required to move his facial muscles was immense.

‘How do I leave the stasis chamber?’ he thought, and hoped the release procedure would initialise or the colonist who could help would be contacted.

An information file opened, a stream of text with optional audio. With no other option, Dan read and listened. The file closed with an apology.

Had Dan’s tear ducts still worked he would have wept, but he was too weak to even lash out in anger. They had given him only two options; continue to act as a controller for the planet-bound Cheshire or to deactivate his own life support.

A sliver of white light in the corner of his vision caught Dan’s attention, as he turned his frail head the glow grew in strength. A door opened outside his prison and final resting place, someone had come to see him.

‘Show me,’ he thought.

His view changed to a position somewhere just above his tube, the sound of footsteps on metal were transmitted via a sound pickup. Everything sounded artificial, second hand sound and light from the electronic devices that served as his ears and eyes.

“Dan?” Came the querying voice.

Yes.” His own voice was synthesised, similar to the one he was used to, but all too obviously an imitation.

Who are you?” Dan heard his disembodied voice ask. It was emotionless he realised, carrying none of the anger or despair he felt.

The figure moved into the circular room, the door slid shut behind. The optic device switched into a low light view, enhanced the image to allow Dan to see clearly. A woman stood in the centre of the chamber, unsteady on her feet after the effects of the cryogen process.

“Dan.” Her voice was a whisper now, and in the deeps of Dan’s memory a realisation started to stir. The visitor moved forward and placed a hand on the tube, she ran fingers that trembled down the front — as though caressing his body.

Beth?” He asked and feared the answer he knew already.

“Yes.” She dropped to her knees, whilst great sobs racked her body. “I’m sorry I left, I tried to contact you — but they said you were in isolation, that you couldn’t be disturbed.”

How are you here? Why are you here?” He asked.

“I asked if they would allow me to take up the colonist offer they had allowed, the one you told me about.” She wiped a hand across her face, looked down at the floor between her legs.

“They relented pretty quickly, said I would probably need you when we landed.” She looked towards his floating body and smiled, Dan tried to smile back.

“I couldn’t live without you, my life was empty after you left. I just wanted to be with you — wherever that was.” She said. Dan watched her look up at his face again.

“When will you be able to get out?” She asked.

Dan reached out through the buffer fluid and pushed his fingertips against his barrier, he watched Beth repeat the movement from outside.

I will always be with you Beth — in life and death.” He could see the start of a smile beneath her tears.

I watched over you for a few hundred years and a fair distance, I wouldn’t leave you in danger now would I?” Dan was glad, momentarily, for the emotionless tone of the synthesised voice.

Go and join the rest of the colonists and I’ll join you later. OK babes?” He watched her nod and walk toward the door. She hesitated momentarily and turned, to blow him a kiss before she left.

Dan turned the optic onto his own emaciated body; he floated like an Egyptian mummy in embalming fluid. His lips had pulled back a little to show the tips of his teeth and his limbs were little more than bone and vein.

Dan recorded one last message and gave the system orders to transmit it to Beth in twenty-four hours.

I love you.’ he thought.

And closed the pilot system down.

Copyright © 2003 by Paul C. Drew

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