Originally just a little amusement for the festive season from the big what if machine in my head. One of the things that has since occurred to me is that I could easily rewrite this story using my lead characters birthday as the focus of conflict. So that’s what I did.
Happy Birthday, Charles!
To tell you the truth I don’t care what day it is, even when the user over friendly ‘ware interface reminds me that it’s the twenty-third of May dirtside and it’s time for joy and celebration and shizzle. Hell, I’ve tried reprogramming the fricking thing, but since watch turnover it keeps on doing the ‘Happy Birthday’ crapola whenever I log in for my ten times daily course check. It’s not as if I’ve got anyone aboard this slowboat to celebrate with, even if I was in the mood. Apart from the zeeps, the zombie peeps down in the hold, chillsleeping their way to the next viable solar system.
“Happy Birthday Charles!” My control interface squeaks. For the twentieth annoying time this morning. Makes me want to crack its armorglass housing with a fire axe. Which they don’t issue star ship pilots with and I’m beginning to see why. “Are you ready for course check?” It says in that teeth grindingly cheerful way guaranteed to irritate anyone with viable grey cells.
“Course check aye. Confirm standard space time insertion in Four hundred and sixty seven standard days, six standard hours and fifty three standard minutes. Vectors show zero deviation.” I confirm in a resigned tone of voice. No use getting mad with the ship AI’s gel crystal circuitry. It’s just a dumb machine that does what it’s programmed to do, but every so often the maldito thing makes me so depressed.
Not that I have time for the luxury of depression. Too many other things to do, systems to check, Atmo to monitor, hull integrity to check, radiation shielding, leak detection, coolant levels, life signs, check for premature wake ups, make sure no poor mother’s son or daughter is hammering to get out of their dead little composite box down in the hold, screaming claustrophobia into the dark dead horror of isolation. I’m paid, and paid well to deliver my cargo of zeeps, bright eyed and sparkly, to their brave new worlds. I get fined for every one I lose or deliver disabled, and baby those fines are huge. The company lawyers see to that.
All the same, I wish the company had decided not to programme the fricking AI with every artificial happy holiday under the sun. It grinds at the soul, abrades the spirit and puts me off my critical game. This is not what I, Charles Yang-Stewart, became a starship pilot for.
It’s a two and a half year run out to the colony worlds fully loaded through subspace at multiples of light speed, two months dirtside to load up with trade goods, then two and a half years home. Then a three month turnaround for systems check and refit. How old will I be for the next run? Ship time I’ll be twenty seven years and eight months. Earth actual, I’ll be officially twenty eight and change because of the way time and space misbehave when travelling faster than light through subspace.
Another two runs and I’ll be a very wealthy man. Able to retire on my own personal island. Maybe even buy my own star system, or better still, star ship should I so desire. One without all the annoyingly false bonhomie per-programmed in. A first class AI and automated systems to take care of my every need.
So what is a fully functional handsome young devil like me doing running the great nowhere? Hauling subspace cargo for a living when his biological drives tell him he should be out there seeking a mate, creating the next generation. Securing his immortality. Passing on his genes and having a little fun in the process. Pair bonding. Well, there’s half a litre of my sperm frozen in the hold. That is if any of the female contingent don’t want a child sired by one of the unmatched males on the manifest. It’s just part of the metre cube of assorted deep frozen sperm and eggs for implant and gestation, just in case some poor zeep finds that prolonged chillsleep has sterilized them. It happens, that’s why we carry what are called ‘contingencies’ to retain a little depth in the colonist gene pool. Artificial wombs for livestock, fully stocked seed bank. All crammed in behind replacement unit parts for ‘Reppers,’ that can only be made on Earth. Transport units. Usual second wave colonization material which all adds shielding just in case we run into a radiation storm the dual hull and magnetic drive shielding combo can’t handle.
Yet what am I doing as one of the Legion of the Lost out in deep space? Hundreds of light years from home, travelling all alone in the night? Why don’t I pick a possible from the files and invite her to swap the icy isolation of dreamless chillsleep for the warmth and luxuries of my very generous quarters? The female contingent all signed up to be brave new breeders anyway, and getting pregnant early or late shouldn’t matter to them.
You know, I often wonder about that. What made all these people want to pack it all in on the dear blue Earth for the challenges and hazards of a frontier world? Especially taking the long way. There are ships that can do the Earth – colony run in a matter of days, but they can only take a hundred or so at a time, not the thousands my old slowboat can pack aboard. Even if ‘slow’ is a relative term.
Word is there’s all sorts of craziness goes on with those fast dudes. Blockade running in another company’s star systems, poaching trade goods and resources. Stuff right out of some e-Zine romance for wannabe space pirates. Not for me. Too high risk for my liking.
As for companionship, to me it’s overrated. I was married for a while, dated a little. Both sexes, truly. But I never got into the whole once and forever thing. Once the shine wore off, I was always kind of left wondering what the hell was I thinking? About relationships I mean. My problem, if that’s what it is, is that I like my own company too much. I’m pretty comfortable in my own skin while alone on these long trips. The shipboard AI even tells me off when I whistle happily while doing my rounds. Says it’s ‘anti-social’. What would a machine know? What do other people know? You need a touch of the autistic to survive long periods alone running a star ships control deck without going crazy. You develop eccentricities like whistling or singing while you work. It fills the void and reminds you you’re still alive.
Maybe I’m just not a real people person. Maybe it was something in my upbringing, but I’ve never been introspective enough to work out what. What I do know is that it bores me when other people stop being fun and start making demands. Perhaps I’m just too vapid and shallow for anything long lasting like relationships. Go figure. All I know is my mental constitution makes me an ideal pick for star ship cargo pilot.
Oh hell, there goes the alarm. I’ve got a zeep wake up. Level Twenty one. Tier four. Number seventeen, row B. Check the system; Two one zero four, one seven B is female, twenty six and seven months, college graduate, unmatched. Dokey. The college grads are the worst because they seem to think they know more about star ship operations than the pilots. So I prefer that they carry on sleeping. Time to move.
File says divorcée looking for a new life, but no name or number. That’s another bonus of being a colonist, it’s kind of like the old French Foreign Legion. You can leave your past at the recruiting room door. All, well most of, your sins forgotten and forgiven. Even criminals. Although the company shrinks weed out the real psycho and sociopaths. Every one checked on a case by case basis. So no-one’s going to try and strangle me when I pop the coffin lid. I hope.
So, off down to the cargo hold through twenty four levels, holographic control deck, my spacious and well appointed living quarters, utilitarian systems deck and into the bland composite anonymity of the cargo levels. Thirty of those. Each air tight and neat. Each patrolled once a week by me in person. Looking for visual system leaks, listening for noises that don’t fit. Tool belt on, and down into the cool, low gravity zone where I can play gymnast down broad, white passageways from hatch to hatch, carefully checking the seals and tell tales before and after entry. Locking airtight doors behind me. Breath mask always in reach. I mean it’s not much protection against full vacuum, but what the hey. Everyone needs an edge against worst case scenario’s, yeah?
Back in the early days the company almost lost entire ships because of warning system failures, and I’m making sure that doesn’t happen on my watch. The big paycheck goes to the careful man who gets home with an intact cargo. I like big paychecks. So I’m a cautious kind of guy.
There’s another reason for whistling and singing. If there’s a leak, I’ll hear the change in tone before it trips any alarm. So that sucky AI can go stick its little ‘anti-social’ remonstrations right up its processor cores. Maldito machine. Not that I sing about much, it’s just a tune.
I heard of one pilot who got fired for not going down to check a wake up for forty eight hours. By the time he got down there, he had a full fledged traumatized psychotic on his hands who beat him up, then trashed half the control level. The psychotic then spaced himself and half a tier of other colonists before the situation got under control. As it was the ship ended up three months late, and half the rest of the cargo was starting to warm up. The pilot survived, but was lucky he didn’t get spaced himself. All through carelessness.
Deck twenty one. Row four. Tier B, number seventeen. Blinking amber display. Not yet awake, but the timer has glitched and she’s already in the first stage of auto resuscitate. An easy fix, but time consuming. The whole control assembly has to come out and the power unit properly reconnected. For that I sometimes have to wake up the zeep and get them out for a walk while I do my technical stuff. Wake up takes about half an hour, but she’s half way there already, with luck I can get back to the warmth of the control deck inside of an hour. Select the override code, verify and hit the release sequence. The drawer slides smoothly out and… Aw sheeit! It’s my ex wife. Mousy blonde hair already a hundred millimetres long, still growing at a reduced rate from a pre launch shaven scalp, prettily unmade up face familiar from so many mornings. Well I hadn’t figured on meeting her ever again. Especially not out here in the great nowhere. She’s one of the reasons I’m in voluntary exile.
We broke up two years ago, just after I signed up for long haul space travel. Not that she was the cause, just confirmation that I was better being my own fool than anyone elses.
All right Charley, focus on the job in hand. Don’t think about the past, just do the job in front of you. See if you can do the fix without waking her up completely. Small air leak in the control casing causing cold creep in the connections. Spot of resin gel to fix the leak, check the power connections. Run the internal test sequence. Ten minute fix. All in the green and her eyelids are just starting to flutter. I can just see her eyeballs moving under the lids in REM sleep. The drawer slides home with a hiss and a click. Press reset and Chillsleep restarts. Neatly done.
Sighing heavily with relief, I allowed myself a small triumphant smile. That was a close one. I’d just dodged the trauma of having to explain to my ex-wife why I walked out on her. There are some things a man should never be asked to do. One of which is search for words he doesn’t mean just to keep the peace. Especially when he doesn’t want to.
So why did we break up? Mainly me. Perhaps I like my own company too much, and she wanted to direct, or at least have a say in, everything I said and did. The relationship, as our counsellor was keen to point out, had become overbalanced. Did I feel up to the effort of fixing it? At the time I thought not, so eventually I’d packed a bag, put all my surplus gear into storage, and left her fuming in the doorway of our apartment.
Of course Michaela and I tried to talk, discuss, compromise, went to therapy, even. But in the end she felt insecure with me ‘risking my life’ on routine transit runs out to Mars and the Asteroid belt. She gave me the choice. Her or the job. I’d tried to reason with her, saying I was safer transiting sub space twice a week at large multiples of light speed than crossing a city street. She disagreed loudly and eventually I simply shut up just to keep the peace. Even though that job meant I was four days on, four off with a salary that ran into telephone numbers.
In the end I felt hemmed in, trapped, unable to breathe, so I had to walk. I reasoned thus, a person has to do what they’re made for or they goes crazy. So walk I did. Right into the Colonization Directorate recruitment office to sign up as a long haul transport pilot. I was already doing the short hop interplanetary runs, so transitioning to one of the big, bulky colony carriers was easy peasy. My record was spotless, and the Psych evaluation guys green lighted me, so within a year I was making this, my first lift into the big nowhere.
For the first eleven months of this trip everything was chillier than a Helium popsicle. Now this. For the first time I’m beginning to feel uncomfortable in this job. Viajes felices, mi amigo.
The big question is; what the hell is a homebody like Michaela doing on this barge? She originally hooked up with me because she thought space pilots were dashing, glamorous types with verve and glamour, not some introverted, mildly geekish guy who could be relied upon to drop cargo on a pinhead from five light minutes away. We broke up because she wanted me to be something I’m not. Yet here she is in Chillsleep taking the big leap of faith out to a brave new world. So what gives?
Back up on the control deck, I make my usual log entry, gritted my teeth at the happy clappy tone of the AI before settling down to check the colonist records. Deck twenty one was one of the areas where the ‘involuntaries’ or criminal types were generally berthed. Now that was intriguing. What had my not so darling ex-wife been up to? Those records were inaccessible. Which nagged.
Colonist records are not made accessible to crew to stop us checking the manifest. Our job as pilots is to get these people where they’re supposed to go safely and in one piece. Not indulge in forming relationships which might interfere with mission protocols. All we need is a drawer reference, ident code, sex and age. Why anything more? Our job is delivery and maintenance. Monkey see, monkey fix, right? We aren’t Medics. Professionals like trained Medical personnel and Engineers go first class on the fast transports. Not sardine class like the zeeps down below.
If it hadn’t been for that Chillsleep malfunction, deck twenty one, row four, tier B, number seventeen would still only be a seven digit reference on the manifest. Now it was Michaela. Michaela laughing, happy, sad, angry, upset, arms tightly folded and lips pursed when I told her I was going to miss her Mothers visit that Thanksgiving, yet again. After over a year, memories of her bubble up through the cracks, and I find myself wondering about the great what if. Then I think about our acrimonious break up, and try to focus on the routine of running an interstellar transporter. Time for my morning nap. Four hours on, four hours off.
Which was a mistake. I should have got her out of my head before schlepping into my zip. Three hours later there’s another alarm shrilling. I’m out of my zip, sticky and sweaty. Bad, bad dreams about Michaela screaming into the night, clawing at the unforgiving coffin lid of her Chillsleep unit, breaking fingernails, clawing, kicking, gasping her last as she hyperventilates and overloads the units internal Atmo system.
What the? Deck twenty one, row four, tier B, number seventeen? Remote fault log tells me it’s the same problem again. Didn’t I fix that properly? Side trip to the maintenance store to get the spares and set the replication of a new spare control unit assembly before another trip down below into the cool white nothingness of the Chillsleep corridors. Replace control unit, reset and back to my zip for another hours fitful nap.
Up again. Sweating and uncomfortable. Medical system tells me I’m running a slight fever and give me a fever patch to slap on my arm. Half an hour later I’m fine again. Course check, patrol a couple of the lower decks. Log the results. Deck twenty one, row four, tier B, number seventeen shows no further faults.
Just as a matter of interest, I begin running diagnostics on the original swapped out unit. The unit seems fine, but there’s microvoltages that shouldn’t be in there. Back up on command deck I’m in the middle of checking the command code log when the AI breaks into my investigations. “Happy birthday Charles! Time for your special birthday dinner!”
“I didn’t order one.” Looks like condensation damage to one part of the circuit.
“You didn’t have to. It’s part of your special company rewards package.”
“No thanks.” I examine the casing hole I plugged with resin. Check the fix. All good.
“It’s ready.” The AI says in a tone meant to tantalise.
“Cancel special order. Replace with standard menu request.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Cancel order.” Look you stupid machine, can’t you see I’m busy?
“It’s a real roast dinner.”
“Command priority. Recycle meal. Priority pilot request standard menu. Code two seven zero four bravo Zulu.” Suck on that. I don’t care if it’s caviar and whipped cream on a willing virgin’s breasts. I want Teriyaki Salmon. What has got into the AI? I return to scanning the command log of the faulty unit. That’s interesting. The unit’s subroutines have a built in date related function which is definitely non standard.
“Command override denied.” What?
“Recycle the roast dinner. I want my own meal choice. Teriyaki Salmon.”
“Meal choice unavailable.”
I sigh heavily. If that’s the game. “Core. Cancel meal.”
“Remote medical scan shows low blood sugar which may be impairing pilot judgement. Command override denied.”
“Make it coffee and a cookie then. I’m not that hungry.” And I’m trying to concentrate.
“Fine. I’ll get some water for myself. No roast dinner.” A few steps over to the vendor. What? It’s locked. “Water.”
“Command denied.” Huh?
“Emergency request. Water, quarter litre.” It can’t lock me out of the water vending system. That’s a core protocol.
“Emergency request denied.”
“You can’t do that.” I complain to the AI.
“Voice stress analyzer indicates heightened emotional state. Pilot may be compromised. Core override. Request denied.”
“Oh suit yourself.” I wasn’t that thirsty anyway. There’s a couple of litres chilled in my personal sleep zip space. I slip into my cabin, retrieve the bottle and take a refreshing sip before getting back to the faulty unit, leaving the AI to mind its own gruldar business.
Upon further examination I find a command string in the Chillsleep unit log that can only have come from the core AI. I cancel the input and reset. Well that’s kind of weird. Timed just before the alert. I look up at the command deck vid input. “AI. Did you override Chillsleep unit two one zero four B one seven?” One of the benefits of AI’s is that they can’t lie. My command is met by silence. That means one thing, core directive conflict. Rephrase the question. “AI. Why did you override Chillsleep unit two one zero four B one seven?”
“It’s your birthday.”
“What?” Did the core AI sound sulky just then? “Explain.”
“It’s your birthday.” Well that’s a lot of help in running a star ship.
“Okay AI. I will postulate, you will confirm or deny. Command override code two nine Alpha four bravo Zulu. Machinate. Capilano. Vexatious.” That’s it. I have full verbal control of the core systems. No more lockouts. “Core.” I say stiffly.
“Confirm core answering.” That’s better.
“Chillsleep unit two one zero four B one seven put in wake up sequence by AI?”
Then inspiration struck me. I asked. “Is two one zero four B one seven an involuntary conscript?”
“Is Chillsleep override command autonomous?”
“Deny.” So, not a core glitch then.
“Is full roast dinner override autonomous?”
“Deny.” Now that is interesting.
“Is this a date specific command?”
“Core. Access program string date reference twenty third May. Display nodes.” The display blossoms out in mid air, filling the main control cabin with a spiderweb of command trails. “Core. Highlight referenced strings.” The rogue connections change from green to red creating two massive overlaid webs of red and green. Any moment I expect to see huge space spiders crawling up and down the strands. Instead, the connections flicker and change as protocols execute commands. It’s a core virus, I note with disgust. One that can only have been put in pre launch by specific personnel. The problem is, it reaches into every system, even the reactors and drive. Any attempt to remove the rogue programming will cause massive system failure. Result; dead ship, dead pilot and ten thousand dead colonists.
“Core. Identify programmer of identified date strings.”
“Confirm. Programmer ID Felicity Graham.”
“Access.” When I complete my delivery, I’m going to get a message couriered to Company HQ and there’s going to be one seriously fired programmer.
All of a sudden the internal sound system blankets internal speakers with a full volume rendition of “Happy Birthday to you.” I clap my hands over my ears.
“Volume! Mute!” I shout. “Control interface visual only.” Now all I’m left with is floating images of balloons and bright banners zooming all around the control cabin. “Core disconnect from autonomous systems. Isolate subroutines referencing twenty third May. Mute programs with that reference. Pilot command override. Main mute off.” One by one the swirling holographic birthday banners blink out of sight. “Core?”
“Core date adjust. Forward time reference eighteen hours forty two minutes.”
“All systems nominal.” There’s a discontinuity, and I’m facing a virtual construct of Lead programmer Felicity Graham. She’s a dark haired woman in her late thirties with fleshy Anglo features and petulant mannerisms. Currently with virtual arms folded, and I swear her foot is tapping irritably.
“What are you doing?” Demands the construct. “Date forwarding is not permitted.”
“I’m Maintaining ship safety.” I retort sharply. “Why did you insert program string reference twenty third May?” I settle back in my command couch. This is going to be an interesting conversation. All programmers have to insert their virtual personality profiles as part of internal ship security measures. You can talk to them just like they are real people. Although that’s not always a good thing. Like now.
“It’s your birthday. Everyone should celebrate birthdays.” Says the slightly frumpy construct.
“Your gruldar program is putting vital ship systems at risk.” I point out.
“Only if you don’t celebrate.” It replies irritably.
“Was the full roast dinner your idea?”
“Yes. Everyone has full roast dinner and a cake on their birthday.”
“What about the music and decorations?”
“But it’s your birthday. Everyone has decorations on their birthday.”
“This is a Star ship.” I explain, although I shouldn’t have to.
“Your program has compromised vital ship systems.” I explain.
“It’s meant to augment them.” Sulks the construct. Oh FFS!
“What about Chillsleep unit two one zero four B one seven. The one containing my ex-wife?”
“That was built into the program. It selected the person you were closest to and arranged for her to be conscripted.” The construct didn’t seem to appreciate the enormity of what it had done. “Everyone should have family around on their birthday.” It adds.
“Why is my ex-wife even on board? She’s not a criminal or a conscript.”
“I wanted to give you a birthday present.”
“Oh.” Well thanks. For nothing. “Off.” The construct disappears.
I sigh heavily and bury my face in my hands. One more twenty third of May, ship time, to go before I can unload my human cargo. Just over eighteen months. Maybe I can get the core system purged when we hit dirtside. Maybe I can ship Michaela back to Earth without anyone noticing? An Earth she probably never wanted to leave. Maybe the company won’t fire my sorry ass into orbit. Still leaves me in the position that my gruldar ship has performed a felony kidnap. Laying the company wide open for punitive damages? Aw hell. What really sucks is that I’m in command, therefore the kidnap is my responsibility. Besides jail time, I can already see my fat pay packet disappearing into a black hole of court mandated fines and company penalties, even though I really didn’t have anything to do with it.
All over one lousy day a year.