The Engineer

Short Story by Everett Roberts

The Engineer

There’s no place on this ship where I can find complete dark. The floor panels light up beneath our feet as we walk. Overheads immediately come on when we enter a room. It took some getting used to, but once my eyes adjusted to the constant blue-white of the glowing floors, it’s become second nature, like living with a constant low-grade hangover, or always feeling like I’ve woken up an hour too early after staying up an hour too late.

No matter where I go or what time it is, there’s always some light pulsing softly at the margins of my vision. Corinne’s engineered it that way. I don’t know if she realized how tired the eye gets when it can never find true darkness. She programmed the ship’s lights to mimic Earth days, but when the night phase begins, indicator lights emerge, shining like eyes in a forest peering at me through the hours, making sleep impossible.

I’ve tried to change the timer, but I can’t remember how. Corinne would know how to change it, though she’s been preoccupied lately with troubleshooting a mounting pile of glitches. I haven’t seen her in forever. I suppose she’s been in the control room, though I’ve forgotten just where exactly it is. The ship is that massive. Corridors all look the same if you don’t have an engineer’s memory of them.

I went to look for her in the archives a month or a year ago, wandering through the wooly, profound silence of the ship, but saw no trace of her there. Same for the labs. Every item was catalogued properly, nothing out of place, no shadows to hide in. Corinne’s a meticulous person, though. I began to suspect she was walking backwards out of every room just to cover her tracks, a step ahead of me the entire time.

For a while I was seized with an unshakable conviction that she was just on the opposite side of the bulkhead, pressing her ear against it to listen for me. Alone in one of the libraries, I did the same thing: I pressed my chest against the wall and waited to hear something. A breath, maybe. A heartbeat. Nothing.

Maybe I was listening at the wrong bulkhead, flattening myself against the outermost hull of the ship with just the void on the other side. I was never sure. I think the ship changes its shape on a whim.

I’ve searched the blue-white corridors a long time, discovered rooms and places I hadn’t ever remembered seeing before—galleys, a room full of exercise equipment, a room with an old-fashioned projector to replay memories, a room with just noise in it, and a room just for smells, countless little bottles of a thousand essences, for when the homesickness and the sensory deprivation became too much to bear.

Once, I found my way back to the control center and the ship’s brain, safe behind a great metal door. I checked the computer for our progress to see where in the universe we were, if we were close to the end of the journey. The readouts were meaningless to me without Corinne there to interpret them.

As far as I could tell, the Persephone was on course. At least, the heading was the same as the last time I checked. We never had a path per se, just a general direction and a destination many human lifetimes away. The ship had been imbued with only the barest directional instinct, but had systems engineered to evolve over time.

According to the activity logs, Corinne hadn’t been in the control center for some time. It looked like a lot of her time was spent in the gardens, ones in distant reaches of the ship I’d never seen. I didn’t know there were so many gardens on the Persephone.

I wondered how much she’s changed. Corinne is never the same when we do see each other. Neither am I. After a couple decades on board (if the ship’s chronometers were still accurately measuring time, anyway) we came together for a tepid cup of coffee in one of the galleys. She was only a little like the woman I remembered that time. Different colored hair, gray, then purple by turns. Her skin was white this time, ghostly and jarring, as if all her melanin had faded away over the years. A face that buzzed and vibrated as she spoke. A glitched voice. Reactions a second behind when they should have occurred. She laughed only once. Leaned forward to touch me. As she did, her arm became a snake that hissed and bit me. I tried not to flinch.

The next time we saw each other she said I was different. I was old. Close-cropped gray hair. A goatee. An old man she didn’t recognize. Jowls. Joints that popped and cracked as I moved. I wasn’t old.

I can’t remember when that was. We’ve gone decades without seeing each other as we make our way around this ship. I suspect it actually does change its shape; that would explain how easily I get lost on it. I’m beginning to forget why we’re even here.

I wander the Persephone in dreams so realistic that it’s hard to tell if I’m actually dreaming. The big difference is a slight change in the ship’s ambient noise—in the dreams, it has a pillowy quality to it, like falling asleep warm and safe inside on a snowy night. Awake, it’s invasive, suffocating, like the weight of another atmosphere. The noise crowds around the edges of my mouth and ears with the urgency of a great throng pressing in to stare down into a well.

I was happy when the ship’s computer Orpheus told me to meet her on one of the observation decks. I got there before she did. The view was spectacular. We were passing relatively close to a nearby star, massive and molten, throwing out great arcs of fire from its surface. Towering spire nebulas studded with stars rose in the distance. Everything wheeled by calm and majestic and unhurried.

At last, her voice came from somewhere behind me. “Will.”

I turned my back on the sweeping vista of outer space to face her.

I smiled. “There you are.”

Corinne was young this time. Shaved head. Full, pouting lips. High cheekbones she hadn’t been born with; a glitch in the Press’ constitutional algorithms, maybe. She was a head taller than her original body. The skin was right, though. Deep dark skin, beautiful and smooth and lustrous like I remembered.

“You were in the control room,” she said.

“I was.”

“Why?”

I thought for a second. “I was wondering where you were. It’s been a long time.”

She grimaced and looked down at the floor. “I know. It’s just hard to see you when you’re… Well, when we’re not ourselves.”

I was still an old man.

When we’d started the voyage, we were together a lot. She was in a different body then, closer to her original one. I was too. Less things changed right in front of our eyes. I’ve thought back to those days a lot over the decades. Sometimes I can still taste the salt of her skin. The neural pathways where she’s encoded are becoming a little overgrown.

The process of forgetting is unbearable. Reality becomes confused around her. A kiss once ended in frostbite. Her hair brushing across my skin suddenly cut me like a wire through clay. The shadows she would cast upon the walls stopped corresponding to her physical shape. For a while, I could only make out her shadows because my eyes couldn’t make sense of her form.

That was all within the first few decades. She began to avoid me when she said that a face appeared on the back of my head. I’d felt back gingerly, dumbfounded to feel a nose and teeth, even eyes that squeezed shut when my fingers found them. I jerked my hand away as if burned, then screwed up the courage to reach back once more to find the face was gone.

“How long has it been?” I asked. A new lasso of fire emerged from the star’s surface.

“Kind of a pointless question.”

I wanted to touch her, but something kept me away. “Not to me.”

She didn’t look up. “It’s been a long time. Forty-seven years at least.”

The silence that followed felt like another forty.

“Doesn’t seem like that long,” I lied. “Blink and you’d miss it.”

I moved toward her, determined to close the distance between us. She took a small step away from me.

“Will,” she said. “I didn’t anticipate this. And I don’t know how to fix it.”

I took another step toward her. She didn’t retreat any farther.

“We’ll figure it out. We’ve still got time.”

She looked back up at me, though her eyes had vanished, leaving behind two empty expanses of skin beneath her eyebrows. I blinked, once, then twice, and they reappeared where they had always been, though green instead of brown.

“I don’t know if this is fixable,” she finally sighed. Her left eye went from green to blue. I cupped her cheek with my right hand. My skin became rough and brown like tree bark. Twigs sprouted from my knuckles, then leaves, and even flowers. We both smiled.

The kiss, the first in forty-seven years, was like feeling my way through a dark room I used to know but hadn’t visited in a long time. The closeness of her still felt similar, which was a relief. I’d missed Corinne tremendously. I’m certain she’s been avoiding me. Shame, perhaps, keeps her away, or guilt. Or my changing shape.

That was decades ago. I wouldn’t hear from her again for another ninety years, until I receive a message from her on no particular morning to meet at a specific set of coordinates. I ask Orpheus to guide me by lighting up the floor to show me the way. I walk for what feels like a full day down endless cool blue corridors, following the illuminated floor panels. The walls, Corinne once told me, changed color depending on our moods. She had never explained what the colors meant, though, or what they were supposed to do. I thought back to the times she and I had spent together; when she and I had last slept together, I seem to recall green walls. I remember a kiss early on for the Jupiter fly-by. The wall behind us blushed pink, then redder with each passing second.

I wonder if she’s in a hidden place. She’s made some rooms and doorways hard to find, as if she wanted to leave some things a mystery forever. She’s a brilliant engineer, but I worry she’s only ever had a mathematician’s appreciation for riddles, and not a romantic’s. I love her all the same.

I smell jasmine in the air, mixed with something slightly acrid and vegetal, an ivy scent, peppery and dusty and intoxicating all at once. It smells like Corinne.

I follow it to a doorway unlike any other I’d seen on the Persephone: wrought iron and glass, through which I could see great tangles of greenery, pulsing and verdant and living. The door had been left ajar.

I walk through it and into a great glassed-in atrium. Somehow, I know Corinne is close. I’m struck by how beautiful everything in here is; the ironwork has been made to look antique, the glass is weathered and uneven, with many imperfections. Vines and crawlers drape down from hanging pots high overhead. My skin prickles underneath my shirt.

I hear the buzz of insects nearby. I breathe in a brief, bright breath of honeysuckle, then musty decay and sweet water. I’m walking on what looks and feels like black soil and dead leaves. I run my fingers through tendrils of ivy, pinch a few leaves of a lemon tree and inhale the scent, elegant as any perfume I can remember.

I spot Corinne through the branches of a weeping willow, her back to me and sitting on what looks like an old park bench. She looks different. Short brown hair now. She seems to have grown a foot taller. She looks like she’s waiting for me.

I approach with caution. She’s such a cypher to me sometimes. I know she loves me, but that article of faith is wearing thin. A journey this long takes its toll.

She looks at me with a man’s face and body. Stubble and an Adam’s apple. Hands the same size as mine. My smile falters; surprise supplants relief at seeing her again. I sit down next to her.

Corinne brushes a lock of hair out of his face. “I’m glad you found your way here.” He rests his head on my shoulder and takes my arm in hers. He feels utterly foreign to me.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like this,” I say.

“Well, you haven’t seen me in a while.”

I don’t have an answer; I just give his arm a squeeze.

“You look good,” Corinne says. “Like I remember. From Jupiter.”

My smile arrives a second later than it should. I look down into his eyes. The mention of the memory always makes my pulse leap.

“You look good, too… I think. I hadn’t ever imagined what you’d look like as a man.”

Corinne’s eyes squeeze shut in frustration. “This is bad, Will.” Her lips continue to move, but no sound comes out. He freezes for a second. The words emerge while Corinne is still immobile.

“I think the system’s decaying past the point of no return.” His voice shakes. Hearing the words while she glitches out is immensely unsettling.

My skin erupts into sores. I can feel them open all over my body. I grit my teeth against the sensation and touch her frozen face. “Corinne. Hey. Look at me.”

He begins to move again. The sores close back up. My hands fall dumbly into my lap, and he looks at me with pleading eyes.

“I’m trying to fix it,” he says. “There’s a feedback loop, something I hadn’t modeled. I haven’t figured out how to eliminate it. And every time the ship reproduces us, the bug gets reproduced, too. And if I can’t eliminate it… It’s going to cause a terminal failure.”

“But the memory banks… The sources. They’re safe, no? If they’re safe, it doesn’t matter, right?”

Corinne’s Adam’s apple rises and falls as she gulps. “The ship seems to have a virus. Even when it’s replicated our consciousness from the original source, there’s a new bug.”

I search Corinne’s eyes for some reassurance and don’t find any. He looks exhausted. I want to hold his hand, but my own disappears as I go to touch him. I force myself to remain calm and shake my wrist a few times. My hand reappears.

“These glitches are only going to get worse,” Corinne says, looking down at my hand. “I’ve been trying to isolate the problem, but I can’t find it. The program that should’ve generated the physical form to accompany my mind has spit out a man, for some reason. I didn’t want you to see me like this, but I don’t think this is going to get any better, so…”

“Corinne, I don’t care about that,” I say, and I’m almost positive mean it.

“Maybe it’s just… I don’t know, systems reacting to some interference from leaving the heliosphere. Something we couldn’t have foreseen. No one’s been this far before. I don’t know.”

I wish I had something to offer, but I don’t even know where to begin. In the end, all I can say is, “I doubt you’ll be like this forever.”

She sighs. “All I can tell is the wear and tear on the ship itself isn’t proportional to the degradation I’m seeing in the memory. I’m seeing at least two centuries’ worth of decay in the memory banks when I shouldn’t be seeing any.”

“And the Presses?”

The Persephone has industrial-scale 3-D printers on board, hidden away somewhere in a massive foundry to manufacture things we’ll need when we get to our destination. We have the genetic material of an entire city’s worth of people to pollinate a colony with. And digitally preserved minds to portion out to each new body we grow.

“The Presses are fine, last I checked. Though I haven’t tested them in a while.”

“Well, that’s good then,” I reply, trying and failing to infuse a little optimism into my voice. “All’s not lost.”

Corinne doesn’t seem to agree with me. She stands up.

“I’m going to get back to it. I just wanted you to see me, I guess. To see where we are.”

“Oh, don’t go,” I say. “Sit with me a little longer.”

I can tell he doesn’t want to, but he humors me. He sits back down, and after hesitating briefly, I take his hand in mine.

“Corinne… I’ve missed you,” I say. I’m seized with curiosity to kiss him, just to see if it will feel the same as last time.

Corinne turns his face to mine, but with her eyebrows knitting together in confusion.

“Will, I’m not… I’m not me right now.” But he doesn’t retreat from me. The kiss is strange. Sweet; but subtle. Stubble. He both is and isn’t my Corinne.

The air around us is light and warm, with a mineral note of decay from the soil that imparts a flinty edge to each breath. I can still feel the tension in Corinne’s body, the way she clearly wants to be back peering into the Persephone’s brain. I know I can’t let her get up and leave me yet.

“Will,” Corinne says at last. “I have to get back to the control center. You’re glitching out again.”

I snap back to myself. I’ve been frozen for a few seconds, it seems. Something’s wrong with my vision; Corinne’s face looks like a Picasso painting. I know from experience that things will return to normal if I just wait it out.

There’s a plaintive note in Corinne’s voice. She’s pleading with me. I want to hold her tighter, but I can’t move. He freezes up as well.

I finally regain my voice and tell Corinne not to leave me.

“But your face, Will. It’s… I can’t stay here with you looking like this. We’re falling apart.”

His mouth continues moving, but no words come out. His face rearranges itself back to its normal configuration, at least.

“Corinne, I don’t blame you,” I say. I’m not sure if my words reach her as I speak them, but she closes his mouth.

His lips press together. His hair changes colors. He looks like he might cry. Instead of tears I see what looks like silver stream from his eyes. My skin crawls once again and breaks out into blisters.

“I think I can still fix this,” Corinne says, and stands up to leave me. He’s covering his face with a hand, which seems to be melting like wax. “I’ve got to try.”

I’m running low on energy; I need to get back to a link. The Persephone infuses our consciousness into physical bodies periodically to perform maintenance and to let our minds stretch their metaphorical legs, and it’s almost time to retire this body and get back into storage. My joints are achy. I hope my next body will have some upgrades; the Presses are supposed to be able to improve with each iteration. Some machine learning program Corinne’s devised, but judging by how worried she is, it’s failing, too.

“Don’t,” I say. “Corinne, don’t go yet.”

He turns around and looks back at me. She throws her hands up. “I can’t stay, Will!”

The sores on my arms begin to pulsate. I hold out a hand all the same.

“Just stay with me here. For a while. Please?”

“Will… come on. I’m exhausted. Your body’s almost used up.”

“I know,” I say. My hair turns gray. The leaves of the plants overhead suddenly turn a shimmering gold.

I can tell the thought of staying is causing Corinne physical distress, but she surprises me by letting out a deep breath and walking back to sit down with me. I raise my hand out to him. He takes it and sits down. The sores disappear as soon as she touches me.

“I love you, Will,” Corinne says, and puts his head on my shoulder.

The leaves have changed back to green. Corinne’s skin changes color as swiftly as a cuttlefish, with patterns moving along his neck and down her arms like a light show.

“I love you, too,” I say. My voice is shaky, but it’s not from a glitch. I look into his face and see her eyes looking back at me. A riot of flowers opens near us. Her skin stops changing colors, landing on her original dark color, from back when we were living on Earth and you could find a place with no lights on.

“I don’t think I have enough energy for another attempt at the control center. Not if I’m supposed to get back to the linkup in time.”

“How many times have you tried?” I ask.

“I’m afraid I’ve lost count,” Corinne says. “I feel like I get so close, but then I just… lose it right at the end. Like I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Maybe the problem’s buried deeper than you expected.”

He fixes me with a glance. “The sources were clean, Will. The original consciousness of you and me that Orpheus started with were clean.”

I don’t know what to say to that. Would Corinne even listen if I tried to argue that the flaw was beyond the original code? I have a sinking feeling we’ve had this conversation many times before.

“I wonder if maybe it’s not the ship that’s causing the failures,” I say. In my mind I’d thought I’d deliver this line to her and look her in the eye, but I’m strangely unable to hold her gaze. I look down instead at his hands. They’re more womanly now; the same hands I remember from Jupiter.

“We just have to keep trying,” Corinne says, more to herself than to me. Her man-jaw clenches in determination. “I think there’s a way out of this still, and Orpheus will show me.”

He stands up again, this time with a hard look in his eye. I don’t know if it’s a glitch or just me, but she’s back in woman-form again. She’s now an old woman, long gray hair, tired lines around her eyes. I still love her.

“You should head back to the linkup and retire your body,” she says. “I’m going to go back to the control room.”

I don’t stand up. She gives me one more unfamiliar kiss and leaves me. The lights around me dim a little. The scent of jasmine somehow seems like all that’s left of her.

I realize I don’t know if I remember where the linkup is; the Persephone has many, but I can never recall where one is with any specificity. I ask the ship to show me the way to the nearest one.

Floor panels light up to guide me. Not knowing what else to do, I get up and follow them out of the atrium.

After walking for what feels like an hour, the lights suddenly end mid-corridor. No door or passageway in sight.

I try to see if there’s a door farther off down the hall, but there’s nothing. I begin to panic. I can’t remember what might happen if my body expires before I can link my consciousness back up with the Persephone.

I take a few deep breaths to calm myself down and check the walls on either side of the last lit floor panel. I heave a sigh of relief to find one of the walls conceals a sliding panel; one of Corinne’s hidden doors. Inside is the usual linkup machinery: reclining chair, synaptic connectors, and a glowing screen at the ready. But as I connect each diode to my skin, I realize I still smell jasmine in the air—jasmine and flint and something else, dust, maybe, or decay.

I choose to believe it’s a token from Corinne, who’s undoubtedly found her way back to the Persephone’s brain to try and get it to lead us out of this mess. I don’t think she’ll find the solution this time, but I decide not to worry. The jasmine in the air seems to be proof like no other that maybe my engineer is in fact a romantic, and maybe, just maybe, she will save us.

About the Author

Everett Roberts

Everett Roberts, 33, is a trilingual technical writer, editor, and former Treasury sanctions violations investigator living in Washington, DC.