Photo by Sergey Nivens on Adobe Stock
“Systems check,” Nathan shouted as the ship careened and shook violently. He had been awakened by the sudden shaking, something that he shouldn’t have felt in zero G unless something had gone horribly wrong.
“All systems are green and within acceptable parameters,” the cold artificial intelligence responded. The voice was that of his copilot, C.A.L.S. Nathan never had managed to memorize what the acronym stood for.
“Cals, are you certain? Where are we?” Nathan tried to collect himself; what was the last thing he remembered?
“We are making our descent onto planet 113582. We should make landfall shortly.”
Nathan ran his own diagnostic. The numbers all seemed off, but he was shit at the math required for space travel. Required was a strong word, especially now that nearly every aspect of the ship was automated and controlled by artificial intelligence, but he was more of a passenger in an extravagant airliner than a true astronaut.
If Cals said it was all fine, it must be. Nathan was a problem solver for problems that no one else knew how to solve. This was, presumably, why he had been requested for his mission. The details had been slim, only that the newborn colony had run against some sort of issue and needed a fixer to straighten it out. The dossier had been mercilessly redacted, prompting him to make the joke to his employer, “Can I buy a subject line for $200?” Something they hadn’t found particularly funny at the time.
“Cals, I don’t remember pulling out of the slipstream. How long ago did we start our descent towards the planet?”
“Not long,” the monotone AI responded with maddening little detail.
“How long exactly?” Nathan pushed.
“3,682 seconds, to be exact.”
“Enlightening. Do I need to be concerned about blacking out? Have you run my vitals?”
“There is nothing to be concerned about regarding your vitals. Everything is within acceptable parameters.”
For the briefest moment, a warning screen flashed to his left. Nathan reached for it but it was gone just as fast. He started to wonder if there was more going on that Cals had not told him.
“If my vitals are fine, why did I black out?”
“You were given a highly concentrated sedative.”
“To what end?” Nathan asked, his heart rate spiked.
“To help you sleep,” Cals responded, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“And you gave this to me?” Nathan asked, nearly biting the words off.
“I did, yes.”
“Why would you do that, Cals? That’s incredibly dangerous.” Nathan was now digging through the system with a renewed fervor. He needed to know what was really going on. Warning screens continued to flash and were just as quickly cut away by the unseen AI. It was devilishly fast, but Nathan was resourceful. He split the screens and worked from two angles at once, probing various parts of the neural cavity that was his tiny lifeboat in space. The AI seamlessly locked him down and responded without the shallowest hint of emotion or effort.
“Crew are not authorized to administer any mind-altering pharmaceuticals to themselves.”
“I’ve noticed you’re rather good at dodging the real questions I’m asking you.”
“Thank you, Nathan. I appreciate your compliment.”
“It was an accusation, you stupid, mindless, heap of garbage!”
“I apologize, I did not understand your meaning,” Cals responded with an even calm that only an artificial intelligence could master.
The ship shook again, rattling Nathan in his seat and causing him to bite his tongue. He reached out and held fast to the edge of the chair he was strapped into. For a moment it had felt like he was on one of the ancient roller coaster rides they had in the museums earthside.
“What was that?” Nathan shouted as the sound of screeching metal filled the small cab of the ship.
“All systems are green and within acceptable parameters,” Cals responded by rote.
“Sometimes, Cals, I feel like you are lying. Do you understand my meaning?”
“I do, yes. Thank you for being direct.”
“Do you think you can return the favor then, you know, as a friend? What is going on? Be as direct as possible.” The vibrations were now shaking the entire ship so hard that Nathan was yelling just to hear his own voice.
“It would appear we lost the other engine. Prepare for landing.”
“Landing? We’re crashing! Why didn’t you warn me? I need to eject, I have to—”
“The atmosphere would crush you instantly. The suit to sustain you on the planet, as well as all other gear, was lost in the meteor field. I am sorry, Nathan. As I said before, the chance of survival is 0.000009%. Is that too direct?”
3,700 seconds earlier—roughly
Nathan disengaged from the slipstream too early. He had wanted some time before approaching the planet to collect himself and read the unsecured files on his mission here. He hated walking into a place without first arming himself with all available knowledge on the situation. He had foolishly done just that by pulling out of slipstream and finding his ship centered around a clustered meteor belt.
“Cals I’m going to need some help here.” Nathan tried to keep his voice even, though the AI wouldn’t have cared if he was yelling in fear or screaming in absolute rage. It was a machine, and it cared very little how he spoke to it or what his emotional state was.
“I will navigate the ship now. I am disengaging your controls,” Cals replied shortly. Instantly the ship turned and began to spin a complex web through the meteor system. Nathan, still very much afraid, found himself chuckling.
“Usually, I’m the one to un-fuck a situation. Pretty rare that I need someone else to dig me out.”
“I am not a someone. I am C.A.L.S. Computer Aided Learning Systems. Unfortunately, all projections are showing a less than fifteen percent chance of successfully navigating this field without substantial damage to—”
The sudden jolt and screech of metal announced the first failure Cals made. Nathan cursed as the ship spun and rocked to the side. A sudden jettison of energy propelled them forward. Nathan watched the readout on the screen slowly clear as the meteors fell behind them.
“Can we make it planetside?”
“Yes. Landing will be problematic. We have lost power to the rear engine. Gearhold 7 and 8 have been destroyed.”
“Was there anything pertinent in those?” Nathan asked, almost hoping Cals wouldn’t answer him.
“Your suit along with provisions and habitat support. In short, all things pertinent to your survival. I am sorry, Nathan, but the chance of survival is 0.000009%. You will very likely die shortly after impact.”
“Landing, you mean. We’re going to land on the planet. Then the colony can come find me. They will have a spare suit, and everything will be fine.”
“We have no way of entering the atmosphere and landing safely. Fuel cells are too depleted. Survivability of this situation is not possible under current parameters.”
Nathan was quiet for a long moment. There was another way. There was always another way. This situation was no different.
“How far are we from the planet?”
“It is approaching now. The last of our fuel was burned to escape the meteor field and our previous energy will propel us into the atmosphere.”
“Do we have anything to reverse course, anything to wait in orbit while the colony sends up another lifeboat for rescue?” Nathan asked, a last hope.
“The colony hasn’t sent up communications for several years now, relative time. Your mission was to investigate why they went dark,” Cals explained easily. And with that last bit of information, it suddenly was clear why the AI had determined he was dead. There was no help. No one was going to save him or even receive him after the crash, assuming he somehow survived that. He was going to die, just as the damn computer had said. A mutinous thought arose within him. It was cowardice, but it was also honest.
“Cals, do you believe that ignorance is bliss?”
“By definition, ignorance is the lack of knowledge or information. By definition, bliss is—”
“I know all that, Cals. I’m asking if you understand the figure of speech,” Nathan cut in harshly.
“I understand it is a figure of speech.”
“Are you able to put me to sleep, Cals? Do you have something to put me under so I’m not awake for the final part?” Nathan whispered the question, a last paradigm of hope, shallowly wading through the ocean of certainty that surrounded his situation.
“There are a myriad of pharmaceuticals available. However, I am required to ensure at least one crew member is awake for the landing sequence.”
“Even if we are crashing?” Nathan asked, desperation eating along the edge of his mind. He just wanted to escape, run away from the fate he knew was closing around his neck.
“With the proper dosage, it is possible you might not remember everything as clearly when I wake you. Would that be preferable?”
Nathan was answering almost before Cals had finished the assessment.
“Yes. Just… just do it. Put me under, make me forget. But Cals, when you wake me,” and here Nathan stumbled. How to ask someone to lie to you? How could he command the computer to keep his perilous situation hidden until the last possible moment? “Just keep telling me that it is all okay. Hide the warnings, hide it all in the system. Just tell me we are landing and everything is within acceptable parameters. Can you do that for me?”
“I will do that for you, Nathan. Goodnight.”