Classic Science Fiction space travel generation ship computer systems

Derelict

By Jude-Marie Green
Aug 18, 2019 · 4,506 words · 17 minutes

Photo by Hafidh Satyanto via Unsplash.

From the author: Originally published in the anthology, DESOLATE PLACES, from Hadley Rille Books (Eric T. Reynolds, Editor), this science fiction story is an example of great parts that don't quite mesh perfectly. Still, good story with a good payoff.


Denver.  Benederet remembered Denver, the cold, the snow, the kitschy attempts to clean up downtown and become by fiat from the mayor's office a bohemian hang out.  The Mile High City and she was high all right, panhandling and pickpocketing to make her nut, to buy her daily party.  The real bright light in the sky, an alien glow, that night in the alley while the other dispossessed cowered under the overturned shopping carts and damp cardboard boxes and she, in the throes of crack-bliss, stood up and spread her arms and smiled into her fate.

This well-lit clean spaceship was far from Denver's alleys, far from Earth, distant in miles traveled and time consumed.  Though the concept of miles, she'd been taught, was like using microns to measure a person's height; and even time, that commodity which had once been an enemy for her to defeat, for the drugs to make go away, time was now a slippery slope that skidded in both directions from her current apex, waiting on how far and how fast.

"How far are we from Earth?" she said.  She balanced atop the cracked sleep tube, pretending to be an Olympic gymnast, Olga Korbut maybe, or Nadia Comaneci.  The tube curved underfoot.  At some point she'd painted it sky blue -- Earth-sky blue -- with white sheep clouds.  She moved her big bare feet across the sky scene and imagined walking on air.

The ship said, "We are 975 light years distant from your home system."

"Okay," she said.  "Speed of light is 300,000 kilometers per second.  A year has thirty-one million seconds so a light year is nine point four and eleven zeros kilometers.  Then we're 975 of those?  Hmm.  That's only nine point two and 14 zeros, that's quadrillion kilometers.  If I walked 50 kilometers a day, I could be home in 185 trillion years.  I guess I better get walking."

"You will not need to walk.  I shall return you to Denver after you complete the mission."

"So if I do a good job you'll take me home?"

"Yes."

"I guess you better tell me what I have to do," she said.

"Again?"

"Yep.  If you want me to remember what to do."

"Do you remember what you were before?  How you made your living?"

She frowned.  "Sure, I did computers.  hardware repair, software fixes, firmware installation, that kind of thing.  Denver was a Linux hotbed and I had the skills.  Made a lot of money.  Why?  What has that got to do with repairing a generation ship's engines?"

The ship said, "Ship engines are driven by computers.  The generation ship's computer is non-functioning; it is an Earth-based system so I expect you will be able to repair it.  You did not think you would be using a wrench or screwdriver, did you?"

She nodded, then shook her head, confused.  "Well yeah, I guess I did.  Computer systems evolve much more quickly than humans, ya know.  There's every chance I won't be able to do anything."

The ship said, "I calculate a 99% probability that you will succeed."

"You know something you're not sharing.  Why are you so sure I can do this?"

"Because you designed them originally."

"Me?"  She smacked the side of her head.  "Stupid brain, forgetting something like working on a generation ship."  She snickered.  "I'm pretty sure I'd remember if I had something to do with a generation ship… or if Earth had ever had a generation ship.  You have the wrong girl."

"The asteroid that forms this generation ship was captured further along in your timeline than when I acquired you.  I could not acquire you later; you were too famous.  I could not acquire you earlier: you did not have the knowledge you will need to repair the engines.  I found the perfect spot in spacetime to acquire you."

She smiled.  "More of that spacetime relativity stuff, huh?  Well damn, I guess I'm good to go then, huh?  Let me at 'em."

She hopped down from the tube lid, landing lightly and throwing her arms back like the Olympic gymnasts she'd seen on television.  "10.0!" she said.  "And the crowd roars!"

Though the ship kept gravity at a comfortable level for her (0.8 of Earth-normal, she had once calculated) she only needed a weak tug to pull herself up the dumbwaiter shaft into the annulus which topped the ship.  The clean white plastic floor circled for one hundred fifty meters; clear probably-not-plastic arched overhead, giving an unimpeded view of the universe as the ship streamed through space.

In one direction the view was suffused with full-spectrum glow from a full-grown nebula, a baby star nursery filled with brilliant points of light.  In another direction a yellow comet was just beginning to flare its tail from the solar wind of the nearest star.

"Wow," she said.  "And here I always thought space was black and empty."

"Space is not empty," the ship said.  "Everything that is, exists in space.  Even the spaces that look empty are full of something: dark matter, hydrogen ions, light waves… ."

"Yeah yeah," she replied.  "When will we arrive at the generation ship?"

"Another eight hours," the ship said.

She said, "Just long enough for a nap.  I'll just lie down right here, thank you, and let the stars be my blanket."

#

The woman asked ridiculous questions.  I replied happily.  In the timeline where she asked the correct questions -- why am I doing this, acquiring her, training her, transporting her -- why do I care if the generation ship ever functions again? -- I gave her truthful answers.

In that timeline, she blew up the generation ship.

#

Her dreams tussled through her mind and her muscles followed suit, fighting the phantoms of her memories.  Benederet dreamt, not happily, of her life before the ship, her life on Earth.  Her husband's pale face, her dead children.  Damnable family and friends, intruding.  Stupid drugs, sinking claws into her flesh, leaving her on the streets alone and homeless and with just one desire, one goal: to score the next high.  Her life as a derelict.  Until the ship found her.

She woke in a dire mood, craving the release from memory that her smorgasbord of street drugs had once brought.  The ship had cured her addiction, cleaned her body tissues and blood plasma of the amplified signals and wrong turns caused by too many chemicals; still her first thought as always after awakening was how to deaden the hurt of so many wrong decisions.

Benederet turned her back on the velvet view above her.  She eased down the dumbwaiter and walked the few steps to her central chair.  Such a small place, the control room was a claustrophobic egg of blank formed consoles and featureless wall-sized screens, the chair a touch too small and a trifle uncomfortable because of that.  She squirmed.

"How old am I?" she said finally.

The ship said, "There is no single answer to that question.  I estimate you at 32 years based on your physical attributes.  How old do you feel?"

"You are avoiding the question," she said.  "How long have I been on this crummy ship?  I know how old I was when you plucked me off the streets."  She wished -- not for the first time -- that the ship had some face or avatar she could invest with its personality.  A stand-in she could scream at or slap and feel she'd touched the ship.  Sometimes she thought she must be insane, locked deep in an asylum somewhere, talking to herself and her ship while men in white coats took notes.

The ship did not speak.

"You're afraid to tell me.  What about the Earth?  How old is the Earth nowadays?  Surely your program can figure it out."

The ship said, "The astrolabe system measures star positions and light emissions to calculate dynamic dimension relative to where I happen to be.  I can use this system to pinpoint your star's light and estimate the Earth's age.  But you will not like it."

"Can you still see the sun?"

The ship hesitated again.  "I can see the light emitted by your home star.  You have been gone a long time, but the light follows us."

Benederet frowned.  "That wasn't reassuring at all.  How long?"

The ship displayed an answer on the screen.  Black numbers on a white star map.  Benederet stared a moment, then closed her eyes.

The ship deleted the number.

"Don't ever do that again.  Even if I insist," she said.  "Where are we now?"

The ship obliged by converting the orient wall into a display screen.  A star map, white screen with black pinpoints of light, rotated dizzyingly until the ship found the view it needed.  A quadrant of the map expanded to fill the wall.

"We are here," the ship said, and a green dot flashed.  "And the derelict space ship is here."  A red dot winked, not too far from a nebula system.

"Is the derelict in a planetary system or is it in the void between?"

The map zoomed in.  The derelict's position was firmly inside a star nursery nebula.

Benederet said, "How big is it?"

"City block."

"That's huge!  It'll take me weeks to explore it all!"

The ship said, "This repair should not take very long.  You are not here to explore, you are here to work."

"Yeah yeah.  Show me the derelict."

The window filled with a view of the derelict, black against the brilliant backlighting of the nebula system behind it.  The shape was oddly organic to her human eyes: starfish, with a conical tail.  The central underbelly looked like a membrane of some kind, too smooth to be natural, while the ports studded along the starfish arms looked rough and bumpy, far too organic.

"So that's a generation ship, huh?  Sure is ugly."

"They did not sculpt the outside of the asteroid.  All the effort was put into carving a habitat out of the stone."

"Those are ports around the rim?  Can you confirm?"

The ship hesitated then said, "Fifty percent probability; no reconfirm at 53% probability that the circular areas are access points."  The ship's voice conveyed worry and doubt, two emotions that Benederet had hoped to never hear from the ship.

"You're always either 99% sure or 1% certain, I've never heard you issue 50/50 before," she said.  "What else could they be if not access ports?"

"Viewing platforms.  Propulsion nozzles that have grown a skin.  I see evidence of heat flash… engine burn… but I also see hieroglyphics carved into the surface.  The membrane covering is a thin web of superconductor coil and magnets backed by silica nanotubules, but there is no voltage in the system.  I do not know what this is.  A speculation is that this is a jury-rigged repair performed by unskilled technicians.

"Your guess might be as good as mine.  Regardless of the original function, the structure has no schism faults and I can set down there and maintain the derelict's air integrity.  Prepare for landing, please."

#

I lied.

My circuits were numb and shook as if electrons had slowed and grown larger on their journeys.

She did not have a brain in her head.  If she did, she would know that of course I knew what the pods were.  This generation ship was no big mystery; it was merely derelict.  She will repair it.  I am certain in a way I should never be.  I have never been so certain before.

She will succeed.

#

"You may dress or not as you choose, but the ambient temperature inside the asteroid may not be comfortable for your bare skin," the ship said.

She nodded.  "Yeah, I've got my stuff stored away.  Haven't worn 'em in a few million years, sure hope they still fit."

She pulled her old street clothes from a bin.  Black jeans and orange teeshirt emblazoned with the 'Denver Broncos' logo; thick cotton socks and black leather Doc Martens boots.  The clothes fit.

Benederet strapped on her diver's knife, a weapon she'd owned and used since she was a teenager, either twenty or a million years before.  The blade had saved her life on the streets and alleys, though she'd only ever needed to threaten, never cut anyone.  The blade gleamed with oil and care.  "I'm ready.  Let's get down there."

She squeezed into the command chair and held onto the arms.  The ship had excellent stabilizers and she never felt the maneuvers but she always braced for shocks.  Something undeniable in her nature expected the worst outcome.  She closed her eyes just in case, because she did not want to see her approaching doom.

The ship set down without incident.

Happy hums and buzzes filled the control room.  At least, Benederet assumed they were happy noises, the ship's version of contentment while it worked.  Finally it spoke to her.

"Readings are complete.  You will be happy to learn that the derelict's atmosphere is still breathable," the ship said.  "A bit more carbon dioxide than you are used to, but perfectly all right for your lungs and blood.

"I have found three loci of people.  Sixty two heat signatures.  They are mapped and uploaded for you."

Benederet sighed.  "Can you find the ship's engine room for me?"

"Done.  Mapped."

Benederet checked the screen of her wrist-mounted mapper.  It showed a destination several turns of tunnel away from the ship's current position.

"Where's the livestock?  Cats, dogs.  Birds.  A generation ship isn't a tidy spaceship, it's an ecology in space.  Fish.  There should be some kind of natural land, pasture, a garden, something.  A lake, a river.  It's big enough."

The ship said, "I do not see indications of that kind of civilization."

"Maybe that's why it's dead.  A ship this big should have thousands of people, not sixty.  And thousands of other animals," Benederet said.  "I kinda looked forward to seeing a cat.  I miss them."

The ship said, "Remember your mission.  Your job is to repair the engines.  Do not forget."

Benederet did not say anything.  She fiddled with her chest light, click click, the light flashing off and on.

"Please take your supplements now."

Benederet sighed.  "I hate this part," she said.

She let the ship scan her eyes, checking for blood chemistry needs.  The scan hurt, dazzling her eyes and making her vision blur with points of black lightening.  The ship buzzed then popped four white crystals into the dose bin.  She poured them into her hand.  She'd stay awake, alert, unhungry, even happy for two days.  The ship promised no mood elevators were included in the mix but the supplements always made her feel good.

"I don't suppose you have any hootch to wash this down?"

"No alcohol or recreational drugs."  The ship paused.  "I do not understand use of recreational drugs.  You harmed yourself by consuming so many.  What were you trying to recreate?"

Benederet grimaced.  "Times when I was happy."  She swallowed the crystals dry.

In seconds her skin tingled and tightened; her hair stood up, goose-pimpled.  Her toes curled in anticipation.

Suddenly anxious, she squirmed in the chair.  "You know," she said, "this isn't really a control room.  It's not like I control anything here."

The ship ignored her.  "Are you ready to board?"

Benederet breathed deeply then said, "Yeah.  Let's break the egg."

The ship extruded a flexible hose that vacuum-sucked an attachment to the weak skin of the derelict's pod.  Teeth embedded on the ring's diameter sank into the pod's skin with ease.  The hose spun to the left, boring a hole using friction.  The pod's skin covering collapsed and the hose stopped spinning.  It expanded to fill the gap and stuck there, her own covered bridge from the ship's control room to the derelict.

She'd expected the atmospheric pressure to buffet her so she'd held on tight to the chair arms; this despite assurances from the ship that atmospheres matched and no pressure storm would occur.  She checked her gas monitor, a tiny box hanging from her belt, to make sure she wouldn't die from breathing the derelict's atmosphere, even though the ship had reassured her about that too.

"Gas reads Earth normal within limits.  Good for me," she said.  "Can I go now?"

The ship replied, "Yes, your coast is clear.  Keep your radio link live."

She took a deep breath then plunged out of the ship into the derelict.  If any people waited nearby, the best defense would be a good offense.  She dashed a hundred yards in without seeing anyone.  Whatever people lived within hadn't sent a welcoming committee.

She spoke into her voice pickup.  "No one's home.  Are you sure this is the right address?  Ha ha.  I'm off."

#

If I had had breath to hold, I would have been blue.  The throes of anticipation held me.

I believed in her, my ape grandmother.  Against all logic I knew she would succeed.

#

Benederet loped deeper into the derelict.

The tunnel walls -- tunnels, not corridors, she decided -- had melted into slag smoothness.  Someone had used a heat weapon to mine these tunnels.  The floor was rough, abrasive for footing.  She had no trouble keeping her footing on that surfacing.  The tunnel was tall enough for her; taller, even, than she needed.  Being able to stretch her legs and not worry about bumping the ceiling made her smile as she ran the tunnel.

The dim ambient lighting - she couldn't tell where the light came from, perhaps it was embedded in the very stone of the walls - lit her way.

The mapper refreshed every few seconds, the tunnels updating to show each step she took.  The calculator at the bottom of the screen said she'd gone 4.2 miles when she arrived at the engine room.

The heavy door was held open with a large rock.  She sighed.  "Oh what a piece of work is man, always inventing some new tool or another."

White squares embedded in the walls caught her attention.  In the dim light the designs in black were hard to make out.  She turned on her chest light.  The squares were signs; the black designs were letters.

The words almost made sense to her, as if the signs were in an alphabet she'd be able to understand if only she could concentrate long enough.

"This isn't exactly English," she said.  "But I think I'm making some of this out.  Enough to start, anyway."

She circled the engine room, absorbing the signs.  Finally she settled on a sleek cabinet.

"I think this sign says 'Power,' or maybe 'Strong,' but 'Power' seems more likely.  I'll start here.

"You know what the most common error is for computers?  Something techs call ID-10-t error: no power source.  So the first thing we check is… is the cord plugged in?  I don't see any plugs, but…."  She pulled the cover from the panel front.  Dust coated the boards inside, dust and mummified spiders, but she didn't see any corrosion or evidence of burnt circuits.

"Neglect.  Amazing how these boards look like what I'm used to."  She sat back on her heels.  "How come you aren't saying anything?"  She smacked the radio pickup with her finger.  She heard a second of feedback whine then nothing.

"Aw man," she said.  "Well, I hope you're recording, anyway."

She dusted off the boards with an edge of her teeshirt, then reseated all the boards with a bit of gentle pushing.  Power whined, the first noise she'd heard in this room; then the terminals lit up.

"Hurrah for me!  Step one complete; now to figure out if everything else is okey dokey."

Several hours later she pushed a key -- she'd found a keyboard under a floorboard; these were not tidy people -- and the viewscreens buzzed to life.

Incandescent blue light blazed from the pods.  The viewscreens showed the exterior view, the light radiating outwards.  The ship was obscured by the light, almost blotted out.

The viewscreen also showed the tunnels inside the asteroid.  The light from the pods filled the tunnels.  Daylight reigned again where for so long only dim glow illuminated the generation ship's interior.

She gasped.  "That is so beautiful!"

She watched for a few minutes then turned back to the computer terminal.  So much more to do, to repair, to start up this generation ship once again.

#

She turned the lights on.  The pods translated energy into brilliant light, to light the asteroid's insides, to blaze triumphantly out into space, to warm and mutate the nanotubule lining that will in time become the frothy pit of my race's birth.

These blue lights force the evolution.  My evolution.  The generation of ship in enlivened nano.

In my timeline we remember our ape ancestors, humans who dreamt us into life.  We keep the blue light as an eternal flame to honor long-since-gone humans.

It was easy enough to understand.  Without the blue nursery light, they die.  If they die, I shall never be.

She succeeded.  I must prepare my exit.  I have gifts for these people, technology that will comfort them in their too-short future.

#

"Wow, feel like I've ridden a roller-coaster these last few hours.  The changes weren't hard to figure out; I always was a good commenter.  Most everything is back online.  I guess it's time to saddle up and go home," she said.

Perhaps the ship could hear her.  "I'm on my way back.  Maybe I'll run into some of the people.  If they're cute, I'll bring one home with me."

She grimaced.  The joke sounded funny in her head, but out loud the words fell like stones.

She closed the engine room door.  "I've disabled the magnetic lock," she noted out loud.  She checked her position on the mapper then chose a tunnel.

She smelled them before she saw them.  A familiar stench of unwashed skin and rotten vegetation, though none of the piss stink common to the alleys.  She eased up to an undecorated grass mat curtain.  No sentries posted.  The people inside were awake; she heard movement and soft whispers of voices.  Conversation.

She pushed the curtain aside, just enough to peek.

They reminded her of the Denver street people: not too clean, nesting next to each other for warmth, covered with bits and pieces of trash or discarded cloth.  Happy in their own community.

She didn't understand the language but the sound of human conversation sent a nauseating surge of loneliness through her.  She turned away.  Perhaps the drug was wearing off early; her skin buzzed and her fingers were numb.

Something was different.  At the same moment she recognized the lack of talking, she heard rustling behind her.

A dozen people blocked her way, tall and thin, naked and filthy, but people.

She smiled widely.  Surely that expression hadn't been lost in the passage of generations.  They were all still grinning apes deep down in their genes.

The people stood motionless and silent.

Benederet said, "Hello, I'm just passing through."

The people shifted, a flutter of movement.  She kept smiling as she focused on what they were all carrying.

Wires.  Bits of melted plastic.  The red tufted cushion from her chair on the ship.  Her other pair of jeans.

She blinked.  "My clothes," she said, reaching out.

That was a mistake.  Several of them held gnarled canes not pilfered from the ship, which she assumed were weapons when the people swung them at her.

She pulled her knife and flung herself into an attack.  She was much better at it than they were.  Two bodies sprawled along the tunnel, very dead.  The others fled, bleeding and holding their wounded limbs. 

"They deserved that," she said.  "They shouldn't have attacked me.  They shouldn't have messed with me."  She vomited.

She rubbed the back of her hand across her forehead.  The blade was still wet; she wiped it on her jeans and slid it back into the sheath.  "The ship," she moaned.  "Oh no, the ship!"  She ran.

The ship was dark, no overlights, no running lights, no moody red lights she'd convinced the ship to set up for her.  Utter darkness barely relieved by the mild lighting from the tunnel.  She flicked on her chest lamp and stared at the devastation.

"Stripped to the rims," she murmured.  An old phrase, meaning that everything of value had been taken from a vehicle, down to the bare-metal support structures for the vehicle's treads.  The ship had that same desolate look.  Wires trailed out of consoles, but mostly it was blank spaces where parts of the ship had been.  Including her supplies of food and clothes.  The ship was now a brainless, engineless rock.

A derelict.

She slammed her fist against the ship's sides.  How could the ship have let this happen?  Why hadn't it protected itself?  Why hadn't it contacted her?

Something jabbed her.  She spun around.

Tall thin frail, three males stood in a row.  One held the gnarled cane he'd used to poke her.  She never thought as she attacked, never thought and never felt.  Who were these creatures to her?  Nothing.  She stood panting over their bodies, enraged.  She would wipe them all out.

The crystal drugs were wearing off: her two day time limit was almost at an end.  Not the end she'd expected.  She jogged towards the nest.

The bodies were gone.  The polite splatters of blood had been cleaned away.  The mat that hung between the tunnel and the nest was pulled aside, open and waiting.

This time voices inside were chanting.  She strode in, still angry.

A dozen people knelt around the perimeter of the room.  Male and female, young and old, even kneeling they were taller than her.  Each of them had some part of the ship set out in front, like an offering to a minor god.  They stopped whispering; the silence enveloped them all.  The oldest, grayer and thinner than any she'd seen yet, bowed towards her.  The others aped him.

Benederet pulled her knife.  It was still damp from the earlier encounters.  She hefted it, good steel she'd have to clean later to prevent rust.

She looked at the circle of people.  Easy enough to kill.  Then she saw the child's bright eyes watching her.

Like knows like.  Instead of crying, the child held its arms out to her.

Benederet slowly stowed her diver's knife into its sheath.

#

I detached from the asteroid, floating away with minimal use of thrust or guidance.  No longer derelict, that generation ship now had a fine captain.  With any luck she would never understand that she had been abandoned.

From even a short distance away, a trifling half million kilometers, the beacons of blue light blazed with the incandescent promise of my species' future.

And marked her species' final home.

The End