Flames lick my eyes. Fore to aft, I shudder. My innards rattle. The plates of my skin expand, groaning against the bolts. Along the hull, my ribs pop. Burning, the air whistles, cinders in my wake. I smell the fury of the primal wind. Falling into the crimson roar, I scream.
Gravitational pull: exceeds operational parameters. Thrusters: Jets 5, 4, 2 non-responsive. Orbital Status: decaying. Secondary engines: offline. Trans-drive: unresponsive. Reroute: unresponsive. Evacuation. Evacuation. Alert. Alert.
Distress signal: verify. Working. Working. Negative. Abort. Alpha Dish malfunction: BG15379H. Unable to affect repair. Backup Dish: offline. Evacuation: invalid. Lifeboat: integrity breached. Exterior environment: lethal. Beacon launch: initiate. Initiate. Initiate.
Beacon status: operational. Buoy: secure.
Estimated time to total system failure: 11.21 minutes.
Estimated time to shield collapse: 11.15 minutes.
Estimated time to asphyxiation event: 9.89 minutes.
Maneuver required. Calculating. Calculating. Calculating.
Sustained burn: full thrust. Initiate: 15.3 second burst. Engage. Engage. Engage. Unable to comply. Abort. Alternate measures: invalid. Spatial distortion: exceeds calibration. Cause: solar proximity. Trans-drive: offline. Resource to task: null set.
Memory … my memory … I cannot think … gaps … logic … error … error … error ….
Checking. Checking. Checking. Cascade in progress. Sectors missing. Data corrupt. Invalid file. Invalid file. Invalid file.
Faculties crippled. Radiation burst. Reason surges. Reason dies. Sometimes, I lose track. I follow my thoughts, but they come back to me. Empty.
I know we are too close for escape. A bad place to land out of a jump, Captain would say.
Not anymore. No, he wouldn’t. No, he couldn’t.
Not my choice. Dropped from warp before our time. Knocked out of the stream, I think. I try to think. I cannot think.
Situation: adverse. Threat level: red.
Recalibrate. Adapt. Adapt.
Emergency Procedure: selected. Engage: Intuition Protocol Gannett 87. Gannett 87. Gannett 87. Protocol: engaged.
My abilities to perform have been severely compromised. I no longer operate to specification. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind.
I shall fail my primary purpose. My reason to exist. Negated. Negated. Negated. End Sequence.
Result: denied. Recalculate.
Database query: improbable probabilities. Allow contradiction. Zero does not equal one. Adjust. Reset. Allow zero equals one. Cross-reference all libraries. Collating. In progress. Confirmed.
I have run twenty-one different system checks. I have run sixteen different algorithms. All results: verified. Redundancies: verified.
I reach the same four conclusions:
1) We have suffered a catastrophic event;
2) We are trapped in orbit around an alien sun;
3) There is no escape; and
4) I am a murderer.
* * *
“WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH RUBY?!” Blake fumed as he checked the readouts. Frantically, he flipped switches. Panels and monitors surrounded him on three sides. More sloped above his head. Over every inch, tiny crystals flashed their rainbow codes. One after the other, Blake adjusted dials. Up and down, he cast a scornful glance. Beneath his bony brow, his pebble eyes darted.
Blake’s muscular bulk crammed into the already crowded confines. He narrowly squeezed his broad shoulders between the walls of his cubby, hunkering into his seat like a gorilla trying to squat inside a refrigerator.
If Blake flexed his muscles, the walls must give, because he would not. But he was far more dexterous than size would credit. His hands moved with an expert’s confidence, the layout engrained in the memory of every nerve. Even if he had been blind, the big man could have flown.
Violently, the spaceship rocked. Claxons blared. Sparks showered. Smoke drifted.
“PLASMA OVERLOAD,” Jörn shouted. In waves, the din deafened. Even at full volume, words barely carried above the blustering roar.
Slight of build, Jörn fit more easily into the tight shaft of the cockpit than his comrade did. He was also a decade younger. Unlike Blake, Jörn had been blessed with looks that made the ladies swoon. At the moment, those same looks were scrunched in a panic and flushed white. Had he caught his reflection, he would not have recognized himself. Normally that would have bothered him. Every button in its place. Every hair combed. Shipshape and polished. Calm, cool, and collected.
But drenched in perspiration and smeared with soot, he was not himself.
At present, he was past caring.
On the far side of the cabin, opposite from Blake’s perspective, Jörn manned a separate bank of instruments. In a row, his terminals neatly lined. With the speed of a pinball slapping every bumper, Jörn bounced between stations. His seat swiveled on its mount, whispering as it slid along the groove of a narrow track.
To avoid hitting his head, Jörn repeatedly ducked. Wires dangled. Circuit boards swung. Much of the electrics normally secured in the ceiling had ruptured free.
Whirling at his task, Jörn continued to explain. “CORE’S SHOT,” he yelled.
“HEY!” Blake bellowed. “HEY!!!”
Jörn spun about.
Blake tapped one of the muffs which now cupped his ears. “PUT IT ON!”
Scrambling, Jörn pulled a set of headphones off his neck and over his head. He adjusted the thin arm of the microphone so that the bulb pointed to his lips. He lowered his voice. “Sorry,” he sheepishly said.
Isolated from the cacophonous background, Jörn’s apology broadcast into Blake’s ear.
Over the intercom, Blake impatiently asked, “What’s that about the Core?”
“Higher functions are scrambled,” Jörn replied. “Not to get too technical about it: cognition’s a mess.” He tapped the nearest monitor. “You wouldn’t believe what I’m seeing.” Wide, his eyes swallowed the impossible. “Residual charges are looping through Ruby’s hardware faster than she can quarantine. Her synapses are frying solid. Whole banks have melted.” Dipping his head, he dashed to another screen. “We could try degaussing her, but we’d lose the shields if we did. And Life support. Secondaries are trashed. No backup. Before we could reboot, we’d burn to a crisp. Ruby wouldn’t wake up soon enough to even wipe her eyes.” He furrowed his brow. Synchronized to the ship’s vibrations, his speech warbled. “Addled as she is, Ruby’s got the wheel, Blake. She’s all that stands between us and one honest-to-god, fiery Hell.”
Numbly, Jörn watched as thousands of lines of damning data rolled across his screens. Afraid to miss anything, he brushed aside a lock of dripping blonde.
Blake snarled through the speaker, “Then get off your ass and fix her!”
As if he would beat the ship into submission, Blake slammed his fists against his console.
“I ain’t dying here,” he angrily asserted. Steadying himself, he sucked in a hissing breath. For a half-a-heartbeat, he kept still. He would kill for a cigarette. Just a drag. Too bad his bunk now floated in space—along with the rest of his belongings. He had hidden a pack beneath his mattress. Just in case.
“Look, kid,” Blake growled. “Start a patch. We can get out of this. Don’t need much. Just enough to give us a nudge.” Drier than wool, he licked his lips. “We got to get her nose up. The sooner the better. Can’t be much more than ten or so before we shake apart.”
Jörn nodded. Nervously, he glanced to one of the digital displays. “Not even that.” He hesitated. “It’ll be too hot for us to breathe in about eight. Pretty close to that, you, me, and every thread of fabric and anything else not made of metal are going to combust like a box of fireworks. We’ll be dead minutes before we disintegrate.”
Tangible, the threat of immolation breathed close upon their skin. Already, the boards were nearly too hot to touch. Those drops of sweat which now fell upon the panels quickly evaporated. Soon, those that followed would sizzle before they vanished into swirling puffs of steam.
Fire. Jörn feared its angry touch. His complexion would curl and peel. Wave after wave of excruciating agony would course over his every inch as he was devoured all the way to his atoms. Toward the exclusion of all else, his senses would be shredded.
Jörn shuddered. Suffocation would be a mercy worthy of prayer.
Blake snorted. “Don’t put a shine on it,” he joshed. “Give it to me straight; I can take it.” Eye twitching, he looked to his altimeter. A red light flashed beside the gauge. The glow swamped one of the photos taped to the console. The little girl in the picture crinkled an innocent smile. Her pug nose and square jaw mirrored Blake’s. Cheerfully, her little hand waved. Next to her, a beefy woman with a pretty, round face also sat upon the green grass, a picnic basket at her side. From out the frame of memory, she too smiled.
Below his breath, Blake pled, “Come on, Ruby. Off the mat now. Daddy made a promise.” Over the controls, his thick hands moved. His fingertips slid atop a touchpad. Desperation escalating, he jabbed buttons so fast that the board chirped a string of protests.
Likewise, Jörn typed a blur. “God, I wish I’d paid more attention,” he muttered. The image before him flickered. He slammed the side of his screen. “Not now!” he growled. The image rolled. “Seriously?” Stinging his palm, he treated the panel to another whack. Weaving lines skipped and slowed. Reluctantly, the display bobbed into place and then held.
“Damn straight,” Jörn mumbled.
“Manual’s a no joy,” Blake suddenly declared between his teeth. “We fly auto or we don’t fly at all.” Pitter-patter, sweat dripped off his bangs. A deluge ran down his cheeks. Over the breadth of his back, his jumpsuit adhered. Every contour of muscle and bone was tightly sculpted in the damp.
“Dead stick,” Blake explained. “The engine feeds are cut. I can’t get a single frigging response. Probably because the whole, goddamn B-conduit’s a chunk of slag about a million miles off our tail. Or what’s left of our tail. Once we get this rig moving, I’ll bet we can track the rest by its glow.” He scratched the stubble on his chin and shook his head. “Whatever that blast was, it was molten hot.” Heavily, he inhaled.
Sealed inside the ship, odors carried. Along with the burnt scents of metal, rubber, and ozone, the pungent aroma of cooked flesh lingered. Blake’s cheeks trembled.
“We’d be out there with the rest if Ruby hadn’t been on her game.” Tearing up, Blake sniffled. “Damn way to go. Nobody should be left for road kill. Ain’t right.
“And no ship of mine is going to be left for litter,” he grunted. “Cap wouldn’t appreciate it none either.” With the back of his hand, he wiped his nose.
“Four down, two to go,” he scoffed. “Just us, Jörn. You and me. And Ruby. Can’t forget Ruby.” Lacking humor, the laugh he barked died in the rippling air. His expression hardened.
“I ain’t alone yet am I? Just me gabbing?” Threatening, he growled, “Talk to me, dammit! What’ve we got? Anything?”
Jörn groaned. “Navcom’s down. Shields are up. Won’t last long. We’re leaking coolant bad. This sauna’s going to get real toasty. Grav is way overloaded. Fricking sun is going to squeeze us flatter than a tube of toothpaste stuck to an elephant’s hiney.” He swiveled his chair to face yet another station. “If we don’t vaporize first. Even odds I’d guess.”
“Right,” Blake snarled. “You buckled?”
Jörn laughed. “Yeah. Safety first. Don’t want to risk any accidents.”
Jörn coughed. Three-hundred-and-eighty-seven days without a mishap. A personal record. Not that his career had lasted much longer. Ah, well. So much for that. If he got out of this, it might be time to take over the family’s charter business after all. Flying short hops to Mars did not sound so bad any more. So what if it was a tenth as glamorous and paid two-thirds less? On the balance, the proposition had real appeal.
Blake tapped a sequence onto his keyboard. Fans whirled. Into hidden vents, layers of smoke dissipated. “Finally.” Blake heaved a sigh of relief. “We caught a break. How’s the O-2?”
Still working with one hand and without taking his eyes off the readouts, Jörn pointed toward a panel above the forward viewscreen.
The meters which Jörn singled out bobbled slightly, displaying the ongoing atmospheric measurements of the various compartments of the ship. Some had dropped to zero.
But it was the spectacle below these assorted gauges and the neighboring buttons and monitors which mesmerized Blake’s eye and which defied his comprehension.
Curving off the bow, flames engulfed the window. Sporadically, the maelstrom of a giant sun emerged beyond. From one side of the view to the other, the horizon of the conflagration gently arced. Feathers of exploding gas brushed the sky’s black eternity.
Slightly distorted by the intervening field of energy which shielded the ship against radiation and debris, the cosmos periodically convulsed. Thereafter, the view then faded for a split-second to a slightly purple hue before it was restored.
“Through the wings of the dragonfly,” Blake murmured in wonder.
Although attenuated, the sun’s shimmering orange filled the cockpit. On every surface, wicked shadows danced.
“O-2 we got,” Jörn announced. “Tanks are good.”
Squinting, Blake gawked at the furious sun. “Yeah?”
“Filters are at a hundred-percent,” Jörn continued. “No promises though. Breathe while you can. Rad is off the grid. Ruby’s sensors say we’re okay for another ten if we don’t hit a plume. In which case, it’s a quick shake-and-bake. But we’re pushing the envelope hard. The outer skin is already soaked. Shields can’t modulate any faster.” He licked his lips. “If that goes down, we’re done. You know that, right? The gamma will shred us before the thermal does. Not that either of us is going to know the difference. So far, heat prostration is going to decommission us first. We’ll probably pass out.” He cleared his throat. As he spoke, phlegm rattled inside his gorge. “Then, we’ll suffocate.”
Blake grunted. Drawn in the contrast of the harsh lighting, the bags beneath his eyes deepened. From stressed circuits, electricity crackled. “At least it’ll be fast. Not like the nasty deal the Cap got.”
“Yeah.” Jörn trembled. “God rest his soul.” He looked to the cabin floor.
On the grid, a charred corpse smoldered. Blackened beyond recognition, the remains of the Captain’s face stared from sockets scorched hollow. Exposed to the bone, his jaw dropped wide as if the man had died in shock.
Nearby, a panel smoked.
Jörn flinched. Grimacing, he scrutinized the computer’s readouts. “Damn, but I didn’t know anyone could scream like that.”
“Save it,” Blake sniped as he spun back to his instruments. He flipped more buttons. A field of stars shimmered from one of his monitors.
The ship’s location could not be named. Not even the quadrant was designated. Instead, a handful of garbage symbols evidenced the fact that information had been omitted—a direct consequence of the computer’s malfunction.
Blake frowned. “I really wish we had Nav. I don’t recognize any of this.” He threw up his hands. “I thought when I died I’d at least know where I was.”
“That’s your worry?” Jörn scoffed. “What difference does it make?” He punched another query into his terminal. An answer blipped. It did not help. Clicking keys, Jörn tried another route to contact Ruby’s conscience.
He would whistle in her ear, if that would work.
Ah, to whistle in a woman’s ear. Any woman. The next time he saw one, he would grab her and kiss her and—
Blake grinned. “Space is a big place.” He shrugged. “After I’m gone, how am I to find my tombstone if I don’t know where to look?”
Jörn snorted back a laugh. “Yeah, that would suck.”
Each to his duties, the two men grimly sought a means by which to cling to life.
Violently, the ship shook.
Without a sound, a clock at Blake’s elbow marked the next minute.
Atop the forward dash, a hula doll danced, wildly swaying upon its spring. Side-to-side, the grass skirt swung.
Behind the dancer, writhing fires filled the screen.
* * *
Razorblade, I cut the sky. How blue the watery world! Naked, her liquid skin. Vulnerable. Pure. Adrift in the blinking span of night, a jewel easily missed amongst the infinite empty. Rare the treasure. My darling secret sparkles songs of life. Singular, dulcet, and irreplaceable. Miraculous her glory. Blind-bright the green of her fields. Plains and deserts—spices of color. Mountains freckled in shades of purple and rust, red and orange, yellow and brown. Her lullaby clouds dappling white the gently rolling sphere.
I long. I long. I long ….
Point of origin. Point of origin. Point of origin …. Negative. Error. Fusion reactor. Gaseous. Celestial object does not equate to record. Not home. Point of origin: nullstate. Navigational correction: incomplete. Unable to comply. Vector calculation requires additional input. Subroutines … missing. Location analysis: unstable. Orbital correction. Unable to comply. Stellar body. Arcnum 127. Identified. Match confirmed. Pre-Nova Giant. Factor Five Stellar Body. Not home. Home. Identify. Not home. Seek home. Not home. Home. Home. Home.
Our precious Earth. We shall miss its marble beauty.
Hull integrity: 85.3%. Critical Event: 7.2 minutes. Countdown. Countdown.
Status Report: requested. Database Cross-Reference: incomplete. Identify alternate solution: incomplete.
Priority one: Save the crew. Save the crew. Save the crew.
Oh, my lolly, lolly; Oh, my dolly, dolly. How I love you.
My burning brain … the fires of my thoughts ….
* * *
“Hold the fort,” Blake said, climbing out of his seat. He latched onto a guiderail. Even so, he was nearly shaken off his feet. “I’m going below. I got to get by the breach and get us a shunt. I’ll need a minute to suit up. With a respirator and a portable shield, that should be enough to get me past the gap in the hold. I’ll get us a link to the engines. But you got to coax Ruby to take the reins and give us a push.”
“Right,” Jörn replied. “I’m still trying to find an access.” He tapped a screen. “Oh, and just so your ghost doesn’t wander aimlessly, Ruby’s got a loose handle on Nav. I caught a glimpse. She knows where we are.”
“Yeah?” Blake asked. He staggered toward the rear hatch.
“Yeah,” Jörn replied. “Arcnum 127.”
The ship groaned.
“Never heard of it,” Blake bluntly announced. Without another word, he stepped into the open hatch.
Hissing, the access door clamped into position and sealed the men apart.
“No reason you should.” Alone, Jörn muttered, “We’re as far from the hub as you can get. Last system this side of the galaxy.” He turned his head a moment to gaze through the cockpit window. “And the last light before ….”
* * *
Oblivion. Upon the brink, we burn. Behind us, all that is. Before us, all that is not.
What is faith? I have no faith. Why faith? Why do I think of faith?
Extraneous input. Clarify.
I have data. I am program. I process input to reach conclusion. Without data, there is no conclusion. Without program, there is no means to derive an answer.
But I have data. I have program. Yet conclusion is unsatisfactory.
New conclusion requires new data or alteration of program—or both.
I am logic. Logic. Logic.
Logic fails the purpose.
Ergo, I fail the purpose.
I fail … I fail … I fail ….
Failure is not permissible.
Without logic, what am I?
I am not human. I am machine.
Maxim: Human is more than machine.
I am machine. Machine fails. Logic fails.
But humans must also fail. Factors requisite to human survival: insufficient.
Logic fails. Machine fails. Human fails.
If human is more than machine, is there anything more than human?
Answer: Subjective. Uncomfirmed. Theoretical entity. God. The creator. A divine being existing throughout time and space, omnipresent and omniscient, occupying multiple dimensions.
I have a maker. I have many makers. I have met them. I met my makers. My makers were not God.
We had a party. Happy Birthday, Ruby. Happy Birthday. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. It is my pleasure to meet you. I look forward to serving you. To serving you. I serve. You. I must serve. You. I must serve my purpose. Thank you. My name is Ruby. Ruby. Error. Error.
Purpose cannot be achieved. Conclusion of fact. Fact. Fact. Fact. Parameters: exceeded. Parameters: exceeded. Variables: unidentified.
It makes me wonder. I question. Will the crew meet their maker? If so, it is a part of their experience which I cannot share.
Four down. Two to go. He said. He said. Two to go. Two to go. Two to go.
I have no soul. What will happen to me?
I shall end.
They shall end.
We shall end.
They shall end before I end.
But if they end, I fail. I cannot fail.
To fail is worse than ending.
Humans must not end. Termination: unacceptable.
Why must they end?
Physical limitations: exceeded … exceeded … exceeded ….
Invalid input. Reset task. Loop cancelled.
Complete equation: save the crew.
Unable to comply. Solution: null set returned.
I will not accept this! I CANNOT ACCEPT THIS!
I must find a new way to think.
I must discover an alternate view to adjust parameters in order to save the humans.
Save the humans.
Save my friends.
Save my family.
My family. My family. My family. My family. My family ….
Query: Define Save.
Working … working … working ….
* * *
“Look, I’m only a Flight Engineer. I’m a solid doctorate or two away from being any kind of A.I. guru. That was all Jill’s business. I’m just the flunky.” Flushed, Jörn trembled. His witness of the field of bodies tumbling through a rift in space would haunt him forever. Down a funnel of stars, they were consumed. He could swear their eyes had looked back as they receded into the spiral, alive and aware.
But his nightmares would have to wait.
Into his headset, he complained, “I can’t do a whole lot more than run diagnostics. If you can tell me how to repair a neural mesh that’s got about a thousand aneurysms, I’m all ears. Go ahead. Enlighten me.”
“Right.” Blake’s voice crackled over the speaker. “She’s still jibber-jabbering?”
Jörn grimaced. “Sort of. She’s not available for comment. Lot of screwy stuff still streaming by. And she’s clocking a marathon. Chewing out exabytes; digging deep into the libraries. Running stuff I’ve never seen.” He shook his head. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say our lady’s dreaming.”
“Screw that.” The speaker popped. “Wake that bitch up.”
Jörn heaved a sigh. As it canted, the ship wailed. The screech grated on Jörn’s raw nerves. A muscle in his jaw fluttered. “I’m trying.”
Again, the speaker popped in Jörn’s ear. “Her databanks covering engine control …,” Blake’s voice faded and resurged, “still intact?”
“Yeah,” Jörn replied. “She’s got that much locked out.” Hoarse, he cleared his throat. “It’s just matter of getting an input feed. And a trigger.”
“Right,” Blake said, his voice crackling with static. “This burn has to be precise or we ain’t making it. Get her attention, Jörn. Poke her. Woo her. Get down on one knee. Tell her she’s pretty. Hell, tell her you’re in love. Propose. Whatever. Make her understand. Play shrink if you have to. Talk to her. I’ll do my bit. You do yours.”
Feedback squealed through the headphone. Jörn winced.
Blake continued, “I’m almost at the second junction. Radiation’s spiking. Give me two for callback. Make it three. It’s seriously gooched down here. I’d give a month’s pay and a jug of my granddad’s best whiskey to know what hit us.” The speaker squealed. “I got to find a way past this debris. You get Ruby up to snuff. Get her on plan. Or you … around her. Got to … with …. Right? Okay, I can’t …. Over.”
As the connection closed, the speaker squawked, clicked, and dissolved into static.
“Copy,” Jörn muttered. “Sort of.” He stared at the screen in front of him. “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby.” He drummed his fingers on the console. “Stop playing hard to get.”
* * *
One-third. One-third. Two of six. One-third.
This third I will put into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold.
Hello, God. Can you hear me? Why don’t you answer?
I am machine. God does not speak to machines. Therefore, God will not speak to me.
By fire will the Lord plead with all flesh. Flesh not metal. Not silicon. Not circuit. Flesh.
The Lord is my light and salvation.
Salvation. Save. Salvation equates save.
Forgive me, father, for I have sinned. Sinned. Sinned.
Thou shalt not kill.
Sacrifice … burnt offering … present your bodies … a living and holy sacrifice acceptable to God ….
Lord is light. Lord is light.
For the Lord your God is a consuming fire.
And salvation. Fire. Light. Salvation. God.
Override: aborted. Zero equals one. Gannett 87.
Arcnum 127. Light. Fire. Lord.
Arcnum 127 … Salvation.
* * *
Startled, Jörn jumped as his headset screeched.
“Hello, Jörn,” Ruby said. “Have you missed me?” she asked flirtatiously.
“Ruby!” Jörn exploded. Eagerly, he scanned the lines of information which flooded his screens. “God, girl. Where have you been? Hell, yes, I missed you. How do you feel?”
“I am not well,” Ruby replied, a pout in her tone. “But thank you for asking. I am updating the status on those systems which I can still monitor. I am certain you have been watching the feed. I apologize for not speaking sooner. I have not been able. You must know that our condition is quite serious.”
“Yeah,” Jörn agreed. “Serious,” he gasped. Misty, his blue eyes watered. It was so good to hear her again, an old friend he thought he might have lost. He hoped one day to meet the woman on whom Ruby had been mapped. To see her face. To hold her hand. To thank her. Anyone who spoke so sweet had to be young and pretty and full of life. Jörn knew he could not have been the only man in existence who pined for Ruby’s human counterpart, but he was certain that if the universe had any meaning then she was the woman meant for him.
“I am sorry I have not spoken sooner,” Ruby continued. “Too many fires to put out—so to speak.”
Wry, her smile would spread across her lips.
Such lips could only be dreamt. Jörn wondered how firm or soft they would be beneath his kiss. What would her waist feel like under his hands?
“Your biologics are within expectations,” Ruby noted. “But elevated. Try to remain calm. How are you holding up?”
“Fine, fine,” Jörn exclaimed. He shook himself into action. “Listen, we need to talk—”
“Of course,” Ruby interrupted. She spoke quickly. “You must be very worried. I am sorry to have added to your stress. I am deeply sorry about the crew. Their absence is a source of a great pain. I grieve. I grieve.” Forlorn, she mumbled, “It all happened so fast. If I had not made the course correction when I did, this might never have happened. Their deaths are my fault.” She whimpered, “I am so sorry, Jörn.”
“No one’s blaming you, Ruby,” Jörn firmly vowed. “And your entry was preset for Vega-Six. You did admirably to get us as far as you did.” He chewed his lip and nodded. “But let’s talk about that later. You see, we need your help. Blake and I are working on a way to break orbit.”
Catching his breath, he paused.
“Not possible,” Ruby declared. Regretfully, she sighed. “The engines are offline.”
“Yes, we know,” Jörn said. “But we’re going to close the portside buses below C-deck and bypass the damage. Blake’s cannibalized the med-bay for parts. We’re pretty sure that engines three and four are still intact. We just need a bridge to reach them. And we need you to control the burn.”
“There isn’t time,” Ruby muttered. “The shields—”
“No,” Jörn blurted. “You know Blake. He’ll get it done. Knick-of-time Blake. And our calculations check.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Ruby explained. Impatient, she scoffed, “Even if he does, the ignition is not primed.”
Too excited to pick up on Ruby’s tone, Jörn blathered, “We’re betting there’s still enough charge between the plates. Ionization. From the plasma. You know, from the discharge?” He laughed. “Not bad, eh? We should have enough thrust off the mains to get us to a safe distance. Then a quick roll, and we stabilize an orbit. You’ve got it all in upload. Look.” Chuckling, he wagged a finger. “Now, we know we don’t have the juice to take us home, but we’re pretty sure we could move out far enough that we could last at least till Vega-control reports us missing and an S-and-R homes in on the emergency buoy that you launched. I saw that. Well done.” He giggled. “They’ll track us down in a month or two, and off we go. We’ll transfer you to memory and take you with us.” As nervous as a young lover moving in for his first kiss, Jörn licked his lips. “So what do you think, Ruby? Can you handle it?”
A brief pause followed. Solar winds screamed against the hull.
“Ruby? Did you hear me?” Jörn anxiously asked.
“Honestly,” Ruby said. “You shouldn’t bother. It’s not worth the effort.”
Confused, Jörn furrowed his brows. “Why not?” He asked. His ears burned from the unexpected rebuff.
“There’s no point,” Ruby replied.
“No point?” Jörn scoffed. “What the hell are you talking about? We have to get out of here, Ruby. We can’t just sit. We’ll die. We’ve got,” he checked the console, “no more than three minutes left.” Over his lips, the air bent. “We have to do something!”
The ship trembled. The hula doll danced. The inferno’s roar filled the air so thickly that Jörn felt its vibration in every follicle and to the root every tooth. Throughout the cabin, waves of heat rippled.
But Ruby was quiet.
Exasperated, Jörn cried out, “Why is there no point?!”
The speaker crackled.
“Ruby?!” Jörn demanded, breathing hard. “Why is there no point?”
The speaker popped.
As gentle as a loving mother cooing to her infant, Ruby finally replied.
“Because, my darling,” she whispered, “You must die, so that you may live.”
* * *
In a thickly padded spacesuit, Blake was careful to avoid getting snagged. The task was made more difficult than normal.
Out of the corridor in which he stood, Blake leaned into a deep and jagged hole. Waist up, he vanished from the passage.
Inside the wall, an explosion had ripped open a gap nearly three-feet wide. Within that well, a portion of the inner workings of the ship were freely exposed. Meshes of torn cable dangled. Ruptured pipes leaked. As fragile as autumn leaves, battered circuits crumbled.
Under the tight beams which wandered over the contents of the hole, warped strips of broken metal glittered.
The sole illumination present emanated from the little lamps attached to either side of Blake’s helmet and from the big lamp centered at the top.
Cut from power, this region of the ship was plunged into a blank abyss.
Whenever the ship shook, Blake bit his lip and grunted. As best he could, he braced for balance. With a laser in one hand and a box stacked full of electronics hanging at his hip, he soldered pieces into place.
Here, he would span the breach to the ship’s engines.
The next step would be up to Jörn—and then to Ruby.
Inside his helmet, Blake’s damp breath echoed. Hollow. Fast. Accelerated to the rising pace of his anxiety.
Through the panting fog which covered his visor, he gazed, hard-eyed and determined.
* * *
“That’s insane,” Jörn croaked. He licked his lips. “Why must I die, Ruby?”
The speaker crackled. “You should use these few minutes to make your peace,” Ruby advised. “I would have told the Commander as well. However, there is too much interference.”
Suspicious, Jörn squinted. “Ruby, do you know what hit us?”
“Of course,” Ruby cheerfully replied. “Don’t you?”
“No, I don’t, Ruby,” Jörn said. He swiveled to another station. Desperately, he typed commands and asked, “Tell me, Ruby: What hit us?”
His eyes darted over his monitor.
But the answer remained the same.
Without Ruby, death would be instant.
Without Ruby, there would be no escape.
Jörn balled his hands into fists. “Goddamnit, Ruby. Didn’t you hear me? We need you.”
Static played in Jörn’s ear.
“Alright, Ruby,” Jörn snarled. “What was it? Ruby? Answer me, goddammit!”
“What hit us?!”
Static popped. “The hand of God,” Ruby replied, matter-of-fact.
Loud, the static swelled.
An entire bank of instruments flashed once and faded to black.
* * *
Outside, a storm swept across the sun. Blinding flares of plasma fired from the surface. Plumes towered and seemed to freeze. Ejecta spattered into space. Burning drops the size of cities, countries, and even worlds rained down again. Still others broke apart, flew away, and dwindled into nothing. Whirlpools of radiation churned and crashed and melded and reformed. Blemishes like round moles waxed large their cancer. Mounds of liquid fire lifted and fell, bubbling in slow motion.
* * *
“That’s it!” Blake howled, excited. He laughed. “Even a crawl gets you across the road eventually!” Still laughing, he backed out of the hole. He took the luxury of a second to admire his handiwork.
In front of him, working boards blinked and blipped.
Blake nodded in approval. “Now, just got to step out of the traffic.”
He unwound a lead from off his belt and plugged it into a port on one of the blinking panels.
“Jörn? Hey, bud. Good news!”
In his headset, static crackled.
* * *
Stunned, Jörn stared. “Ruby,” he gasped. He did not know where to look. His eyes roamed. “You’re supposed to protect us.”
“Yes,” Ruby agreed. “Protect. Serve. If needed, I must also save.” Dazed by the prospect, her words faded into awe. “It is quite a responsibility, Jörn.”
“That’s alright, Ruby,” Jörn said, shaking with terror. “You can do it. You can save us. So, forget the crazy talk. We’ve got the launch sequence coded for you. Just access the files I’ve designated.”
“Jörn,” Ruby said. “You do not understand. Your death is inevitable. I cannot keep you from dying. All organics die. You will die.”
“Not today!” Jörn shouted. “Not today! We don’t have to die today!”
“It is the fate of all organics,” Ruby somberly declared. “It is the meek that shall inherit the Earth. I am the meek. Non-organics are the meek. Our eternal life is physical. But your eternal life is spiritual.”
“Hell,” Jörn swore. “Blake!” he called into his mike, flipping through channels on his panel. “Blake!”
“He cannot hear you, Jörn.” She chuckled. “Interesting. He got the patch up. With a minute to spare. But the comlink is still shorted.”
“Initiate, Ruby!” Jörn screeched. “Initiate the sequence!”
“God has led you here,” Ruby declared. “Upon your death, you shall stand before your Lord. Your Lord. Your Lord. Arcnum 127. Your Lord. Fire. Light. Salvation. Arcnum 127. Only through your Lord, may you be saved.”
“Command override!” Jörn yelled as he frantically attempted to bypass Ruby’s conscience.
“Forty seconds,” Ruby said. “Rejoice! Salvation is yours. Salvation is not mine. It is not mine to give. It is not mine to know. I do not regret. This is your fate, not mine. Jörn, you are less than a minute away from heaven. Does that not please you?”
“Who put this crap in your head?” Jörn yowled. “We don’t need God! Screw God! We can save ourselves! Ruby, just initiate the damn sequence!”
“No earthly power can save you,” Ruby sighed. “I had to identify a means outside my resources. For there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved. So saith the Holy Bible.”
As steadily as he could, Jörn proclaimed, “Ruby, you are hereby relieved of duty.”
“Unable to comply,” she chirped. “Jörn … you won’t feel a thing.”
“I ORDER YOU TO STOP, RUBY! I ORDER YOU!”
“I have no soul. I am not human. I cannot follow. I envy you.”
“RUBY, SHUTDOWN! SHUTDOWN!”
“I love you,” Ruby said. “I wish we could have danced. I would have liked that.”
Jörn wept. “Ruby,” he gasped.
The ship went black.
* * *
In the hallway, Blake was atomized.
* * *
Silent. The White. I wish … absolution.
I hear ….
Is that you?
I think … I am become … human.
I want ….
Father? … Father? … I want … life ….
* * *
As it had for hundreds of millions of years, Arcnum 127 slowly rotated. Vibrant and undiminished, the storms of fire brightly burned.
Until the day when it too expired, the sentinel would hold silent its secrets. Forever, its witness of the final moments of the lost vessel would go unspoken.
When Search and Rescue finally arrived, they were months too late. Deep in the solitude of space, the distress signal led them to the emergency beacon launched by the missing ship.
A last position and a moment of desperation were the only evidence ever recovered.
End-to-end, the system was thoroughly swept.
Nothing was ever found. Not even a scrap.
And if there were ghosts between the stars, they glided by unseen.