From the author: A space ship traveling for 4,000 years requires a lot of maintenance, but who does the emergency work when the crew is asleep? Engineers Anise and Sierra discover there is more going on in their starship then they ever trained for or expected.
Dragging a pack full of equipment behind her, Anise Delaney crawled her way between the slick inner wall of The Redeemer and the rough textured outer shell. Not only was she tall, but her shoulders were broad. A rugby player’s build wasn’t the best choice for this errand. She envied Sierra’s slight figure who was following. Anise’s back scraped against the metal again, and she opened her mouth in exclamation, but bit the sound short. Something moved in the claustrophobic darkness just beyond her headlamp. She held her breath until it moved closer into the light. It was just a maintenance bot scuttling away on its regular rounds.
She relaxed and said over her shoulder, “By all my calculations, we should be dead.” Her light illuminated the squeezed path before her like a broad but very low mineshaft. The air smelled stale and metallic. She thought about gremlins, dwarves and tommyknockers. And leprechauns. Her grandmother had a few stories about them. This would be the kind of place they would like, walking unseen below the ark-ship crew’s world, causing trouble. She grinned at the idea, but only for an instant; the interior of the grey hull absorbed light, accepted no shadows, and it hurt her hands to crawl on it. Next time I’ll bring gloves and knee pads, she thought.
Sierra, a few feet back, grunted in acknowledgment. “But we’re not dead. That doesn’t mean there was anything extraordinary.”
Anise checked a monitor mounted on her wrist. They were close to where her calculations said there should be an impact crack. “There you go again. I told you from the beginning that they made a mistake when they crewed these ships. We’re homogeneous. All this scientific expertise creates blind spots. We assume everything has a rational explanation and that’s not sensible. Sucks the wonder out of living. Weird things have happened on this ship. Strange sounds behind the walls. Tools moved. Meals missing. Remember when Yatmaso lost his glasses? Couldn’t find them for a week, and there they were, in the middle of his desk. ” She scooted forward ten more feet. Naturally the stressed area would be exactly between two of the access panels. “It’s like that rainbow on the day we took off. I see it as a sign, and when I point it out to you, you give me a lecture on light and refraction. They made sure there was racial and ethnic diversity, but not much diversity of thought. We don’t even have an acupuncturist on board.”
“You’d want to be stuck with needles for a headache? The problem is that you’re homesick, Irish girl.”
“It’s not homesickness. It’s just that everything is so . . . so . . . planned. Even our genetics. When we get to Zeta Riticula, the computer will control our breeding, screen our genes, manipulate them to fit the environment, twitch and tweak us to keep us healthy. It has mission control. God knows what all it’s up to. We’re letting the computer make autonomous decisions. I just think that being human means accepting a bit more chance in our lives and staying open to wonder.”
Sierra said, “Chance and wonder gave us the mutagen and drove us off Earth. Besides, I like what the computer is doing. Did you have some of the new tomatoes for lunch? The botanist said that not only are they more resistant to disease, but it takes half the water to grow. That’s what happens when you give a computer some decision making capabilities and a lot of time to work with. Those old people invented gods because they needed to explain how their worlds worked. We engineered ours. How much farther? This is tearing up my hands and knees.”
“I think we’re there.” Anise checked the monitor again. The numbers confirmed they were on the site, but to her eye the surface appeared uniform and undamaged. She dragged her pack to where she could reach it, then pulled out a hull diagnostic device, a sophisticated tester for metal integrity. She was homesick. When they’d started the flight a year earlier (by their time–the Caretaker crew was awake only two weeks of every hundred years, while the ship had been traveling for 2,600 years), homesickness was an easily disregarded triviality. Anise thought now about the hills south of Letterkenny in Donegal where she’d grown up. No more wind off Trawbreaga Bay and Lough Swilly carrying a hint of salt and far away, North Atlantic storms. No more heather-covered hills.
Sierra said, “The maintenance bots have been all over this section, and they didn’t report anything.”
“I know, but I’ve got to see for myself.” Anise connected the two thumb-sized transmitters a yard apart on the hull, then pressed the diagnostic device’s trigger, sending a low-level radiation pulse through the hull, which tested whole for three feet before reaching a complicated series of cracks that lead all the way to the outer surface and the vacuum of space. Beyond that the device didn’t measure, but Anise could imagine the light years of emptiness. Light years from Earth and Ireland. Light years from Zeta Riticula. She tried to remember what the morning mist felt like on her last hike to the ancient circular fortress, Grianan of Aileach, where she stood atop the thousands of years old wall waiting for the weather to break. On a clear day she could see the Swilly estuary, the Inishowen peninsula and much of Derry, but the fog never broke. The cool, damp stones were slick under her fingers. She’d heard a noise behind her, a quick, light laugh. No one stood in the fortress’s circular sward. The tops of the wall in both directions were empty. It didn’t take much to believe that there was more to the world than appeared when she was by herself in a land filled with so many stories.
“Nothing close here.” She moved six feet and replanted the sensors.
“Which is just what the computer reported. Why can’t you admit that the hull performed the way it was designed? In the event of a collision, force is supposed to be transmitted laterally. That way a speck can’t poke all the way through.”
“When we’re going at a quarter of the speed of light, a ‘speck,’ packs one hell of a lot of kinetic energy, and this was much more than a dust mote. The numbers say it was about the size of a marble. The ship should have shattered like a porcelain egg.” She read the results again. The cracks radiated to within a foot of the inner surface.
“I don’t get why you’re looking for a break in the hull when there clearly isn’t one. We’d be freeze-dried and vacuum-packed if there was. Do you hear a breeze? I don’t hear a breeze. the hull held. The outside squads will resurface the ship, and we’ll be back in the sleep pods before you know it.”
Anise scooted farther forward. “Well, if the numbers tell me that we should be busted, and we’re not, I’d like to know why.”
“For once the ship exceeded the design specs.”
Anise saw the crack before her monitor reported it to her. The inside surface of the hull had a grain to it, representing the millions of interwoven carbon-metal threads that gave the ship its unprecedented durability, but it needed that strength if it was going to survive the 4,000 year-long trip to Zeta Riticula intact, and deliver its crew of mostly slumbering Caretakers and frozen embryos and colonization gear to the distant planet. Her head lamp showed the break, a long, crooked line across the rough texture. The monitor confirmed it: the series of fissures emanating from the collision led all the way to here, hundreds of yards from the impact spot on the hull’s exterior..
At first it was just a hairline, then, it widened to as much as a fingernail in thickness, four feet long. Anise scrinched forward, directing her light onto the hull.
Sierra inhaled sharply. “God! You were right, but it can’t be continuous. Not to the surface.”
Anise didn’t answer. The monitor told her the story. The line was a part of a ten foot thick system of fractures. She pressed her finger against the crack, then looked at the raised mark it left on her skin. “We should be dead.”
Sierra offered, “The bots . . .”
“Were knocked out. Two hours without power while the ship rerouted energy and woke us up. Besides, they weld hull breaks. No weld here.” She unsnapped a knife from her tool belt then poked the end into the crack. It was hard to see, since the gap was so narrow, but it didn’t appear to be more than a half inch deep. The knife stopped. She jabbed it in again. There was a little give, not like metal against metal. More like digging into wood. Carefully, she rocked the knife point back and forth. When she brought it out, a white residue coated the end.
“What is it?” asked Sierra.
“We need to get back to the lab.” Anise scraped the residue into an envelope and sealed it.
At the end of her work shift, Crew Chief Yatmaso paused at Anise’s station. His hair was uncombed, and tiredness bruised the skin beneath his eyes. “Sierra says you found a crack in the hull, a real crack?”
“It’s sealed, but that’s not what’s . . .”
“Thank goodness for that. The repair squads are working in gangs to refurbish the exterior. With some effort, we should be sleeping again in a few days, but it’s thrown off everyone’s schedule. There’s a committee deciding if the next crew should be awakened early, or if we should keep them on cycle. It’s an extra seventeen years before the next maintenance that way, but then we’d be back to normal. Plus, we’ve got to worry if there’s another stone like the last one in front of us. We shouldn’t have hit anything.”
Anise pushed a notebook at him. “Can you look at my numbers?”
He took the notebook in one hand and rubbed his eyebrows with the other. “Couldn’t you show me these on your computer? Your handwriting is terrible.”
She crossed her arms. “I get different numbers on the computer.”
The crew chief handed her the notebook, “Then you made a mistake.”
“The crack in the interior wasn’t welded.”
“It wasn’t leaking either. It just means the maintenance-bots missed it. The system was under a lot of stress those first hours after the collision.”
Before she could even give him a disgusted look, he left. She leaned back in her chair, the notebook in her lap. Above her monitor was a digital display from home: a long, green hill, sun-streaked and cloud-shadowed. In the foreground stood a whitewashed cottage with a thatched roof. During the summer she used to explore the hills, heather and clover and dew-damp moss in the air, sometimes taking an entire afternoon to climb one, her thighs burning. Folks called Ireland the Emerald Isle, and they were right. The more she thought about it, the greener it became. The month before the flight she’d spent seaside at Bundoran in south Donegal, where cliffs bracketed the beach on either side. Waves had carved the stone into fantastic lavender-blue formations, but behind them the hills rose, green on green.
It takes a long time to say goodbye to a country, and she didn’t realize she was, really realize she was until it was too late.
She flicked her monitor to the analysis of the white residue she’d found in the crack. She’d asked the computer to identify it and run a match. It was plastic, the same kind that formed almost everything on the ship that wasn’t metal. How did plastic end up blocking a crack that could have been disastrous to their mission? What saved the ship during the two hours when the maintenance bots were down?
After a few key clicks, the time line for the collision came up. At zero hundred hours, a marble-sized rock hit The Redeemer. Power supplies to the bots and most of the ship’s key systems, including the computer were interrupted. Automatic routines, independent of the computer kicked in, warming a Caretaker crew and searching for alternate paths around the system breaks. An hour and fifty minutes later, the computer regained ship control. The bots started moving, and ten minutes after that, the crew began to awaken to klaxons and emergency lights.
Anise tapped her finger against the monitor. The bots scurried everywhere in the record. They had to have found the crack she’d found. They couldn’t miss it. But by then it was already sealed.
Anise’s mattress felt stiff beneath her. Not that that was surprising. It was 2,600 years old, as were the sheets and blankets and the clothes she wore. Everything on the ship had a brittle look to it. The engineers and manufacturers put The Redeemer together out of theory and hope. Could humans survive repeated cold sleep to make the 4,000 year long trip? Could the ship keep itself repaired? Could the crew remake and recalibrate the hundreds of times it would take to arrive at the distant star? Yes, in theory.
As she tried to sleep, she thought about the computer, a redundantly designed, decentralized intelligence interlaced throughout the ship, capable of independent action, controlling all the systems, directing the toaster-sized, multi-tooled bots that scurried through the maintenance tunnels like industrious mice. What did the computer do while they were asleep? Why didn’t her collision calculations done by hand match the numbers the computer spit out? And, most nagging, how did the plastic that undoubtably save their lives end up in the crack the bots hadn’t found?
Finally, after what seemed like hours of trying to find a comfortable position, she drifted on the self-aware edge of consciousness, half hearing the ship, half hearing the mountain rush of her own blood stream. Lazily she thought of an old lover, long dead now on Earth. She had picked him because he looked like William Butler Yeats, a long face behind black, wire-rimmed glasses. Anise asked him to read her poetry, and as she settled deeper into sleep, she heard his voice until he became a part of a dream, and in the dream he became William Butler Yeats sitting on a rock along the trail to the flat-topped mountain, Benbulbin. Not the old Yeats who wrote “The Second Coming,” with its prophetic, “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” -- the rough beast indeed of the mutagen that had driven them to build the ark-ships and sent them skyward, trusting that not everything human need end -- but a young man in his mid twenties, the one who collected Irish folktales and wrote, “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, and a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made: nine bean rows will I have here, a hive for the honey bee, and live alone in the bee-loud glade.”
Yeats held a walking stick in one hand, and a book lay open on his lap. “What are you looking for, lass, so early on a morning as fine as this?”
But before she could answer his question, a wind came up, and the figure of Yeats dissolved into a wisp and the rock was empty. Behind her, something laughed. She turned, and the long trail down the mountain was empty, though there were many limestone boulders a being could hide behind. She thought, there must be leprechauns or Sidhe, the fairy folk.
Yeats’s voice came out of the wisp. “One wonders if the creatures who live followed us from the ruins of our old towns, or did they come from the banks of the river by the trees where the first light had shone for a moment?”
Even in the dream, she was puzzled, and when she sat on the rock where Yeats had been, she found it wasn’t rock at all, but white plastic. She scraped at it and white remnants stuck under her fingernails. The wind blew again, moaning through the rocks. She could see it, eddying through the fog below her where the trail disappeared, twisting the grey cloud into fantastic shapes. For a second she saw faces. Scowling faces, and she couldn’t breathe.
They were taking the air, the faces in the fog, stealing the air from around her. The hull is breached, Anise thought. She tried to scream, but when her mouth opened all the breath rushed out. No air! She flopped off the rock, hand at her throat, while the sky darkened so quickly that within a few eye blinks stars shone through.
The hull is breached!
Deep in the warehouse module, Anise found what she’d been searching for, the raw polychloride supplies that served as a base for any of dozens of kinds of plastics the ship might need. Six huge vats standing on stubby legs held the chemicals. Sierra wandered toward the back of the room. “I don’t see what the point in coming down here. It’s been hundreds of years since this area’s been used.”
The low ceilinged room absorbed the sounds of their footsteps. Recessed wall lights illuminated the area poorly. Anise imagined steely-eyed little people watching them from the deep shadows. She shook her head, then popped the latch on the first vat and pushed the lid. It resisted for an instant, then the hinges gave way reluctantly. According to the records, this vat hadn’t been opened in eight-hundred years. Grainy, white flakes filled it to the top. She dipped her hand in thoughtfully. Plastic, exactly like what she’d found chocking the crack in the hull fell from her grip like sand. Under the atmospheric pressure from within the ship, the plastic had solidified into an airtight seal. If the crack had been any more than a complex set of fissures, the plastic would have flown into space with their air, but the break had been so narrow and filled with twists and turns that the plastic piled up, expanded and corked the leak.
Anise picked up another handful, let the grains trickle between her fingers and tried to picture what had happened in the minutes after the collision. The records showed the computer went off line. The bots, without direction, froze. Emergency lights with their own power supplies turned on. At the break, air would have been screaming: the deadly whistle that spelled death, only no one was awake to hear it. How did the plastic get into the crack?
She massaged her forehead. In the old stories, leprechauns would sometimes do a worthy family a favor. Every culture, it seemed, had stories of little people by various names: elves, fairies, peri, pooka, nymphs, dwarves, gnomes, brownies, goblins, nixes, kobold, trolls and gremlins.
In her dream, Yeats had asked where the creatures came from. Had they followed humanity from town to town, or did they generate spontaneously from the land? Old Earth was dead now or dying. Was it possible that something other than the thoroughly inventoried supplies, the carefully thought out stockpiles of embryos and tools and equipment was aboard The Redeemer?
How would it live?
Anise said, “You checked on air consumption like I asked?”
Sierra peeked over the top of one of a vat. “Yep. The numbers line up perfectly. Nothing is breathing on this ship that we don’t know about. Not only that, but nothing is eating, drinking or processing waste either. I suppose you’ll say that confirms a supernatural explanation.”
“I like the idea of the supernatural. That doesn’t mean I believe that’s what happened. How’d the plastic seal the breach?”
“Maybe there was plastic residue on the hull?”
Sierra’s tone showed that even she thought the explanation was weak. Anise shut the lid and relatched it.
“Ah, ha!” said Sierra. “Take a look at this.”
Anise hurried past the vats, squeezing between the last one and the storage lockers that made up the wall. Sierra was on her knees. “See,” she said, “there doesn’t have to be a supernatural component. Rationality rules.”
On the floor was a white pile of plastic, spilled from a small rupture at the back of the tank. Sierra said, “So, some of the plastic wasn’t in the vats.”
Anise dropped to her knees, pushed her finger into the gap, provoking a mini plastic avalanche. “Huh! It’s a long way from this room to the crack in the hull. How did it get from here to there?”
“One problem down, one to solve,” said Sierra triumphantly. “Maybe this time luck was on our side.”
“Luck of the Irish?” asked Anise.
Above Anise’s head, from an air vent, came a quick scratching, like twigs on metal. She looked up. “Did you hear that?”
Sierra looked up too. “No. What was it?”
Anise held her breath, waiting for the sound to repeat. “I don’t think it was a bot.” She contemplated the pile of plastic on the floor. “Normal maintenance should have caught this long ago.”
Sierra leaned her back against a locker. “Are you sure you heard something?” A distinct thump of thin metal rebounding echoed through the room, as if something weighty had moved in the air duct. Sierra jumped, then rubbed her arms, still looking up. “ The bots are practically perfect. They never miss stuff.” She stood, holding her elbows tight, her arms close to her side as if she were cold.
“No, they shouldn’t. Let’s go back to my station. I want to check something.”
Before she closed the door to the module, Anise looked back into the room. It didn’t take much to picture faces in the dark, to see tiny fingers wrapped around the air vent where something hidden studied her.
Anise said, “We have to eliminate possibilities. First, is it possible that a Caretaker was awake during the collision?”
Sierra consulted her monitor. “According to the computer records, no.”
“Could the computer be wrong?”
“Not likely. Not only does the computer keep track where everyone is, but each sleep tank has its own start-up and shut-down history. I checked all fifty of our shift’s tanks, and also the one-hundred and fifty tanks from the other three shifts. No Caretaker was awake.”
“Is it possible there’s another person on board who never uses the sleep tanks?”
Sierra laughed. “He’d be over 2,600 years old.” She sobered. “I haven’t been able to think of a single explanation. Not only that, but I ran an analysis of duty logs since the trip started, and from nine-hundred years or so ago, the incidence of unexplainable phenomena began going up. Not just misplaced tools either. Clothing has been moved. Doors open that should be closed. Repairs made that weren’t ordered. All kinds of stuff. If you look into the public journals, there’s dozens of other odd reports too. Many crew members have recorded feelings like they’re being watched, or that something moved in the corner of their eye. It gives me the creeps. The computer monitors everything that happens on board, and it reports nothing. Maybe we do have gremlins.”
“Leprechauns,” Anise said absently. “We’re missing a bet, here. There’s a factor we’re overlooking. I’m going to put some equipment together. Come back tomorrow. I’ll need your help again.”
Sierra looked pained. “Yatmaso says we go back into the sleep pods in two days. I don’t like the idea of leaving the ship to ghosts and other slithery creatures while I’m unconscious. Do you think they come look at us?” She shivered.
“Now look at who’s not being rational.”
“It’s your fault. I’ve examined the computer records, the bot work schedules and every anomalous occurrence on the ship in the last nine hundred years. It doesn’t make sense. If there was something else on board, there would be computer records, but there’s nothing there. Something put the plastic into the breach, and the best explanation is your leprechauns. We’re on a possessed or infested ship.” Sierra tightened her hands until her knuckles whitened bright as paper. “I’m not sleeping tonight. I’m not sleeping ever again.”
“Come back tomorrow.” Anise put her hand on Sierra’s shoulder whose muscles were rock tight and trembling.
After Sierra left, Anise gathered her supplies. First, to the kitchen for bread and cheese, and then to the electronics warehouse. Finally she visited cryogenic storage, where drawer after drawer of frozen, fertilized ovum waited for their test tube births. She searched for over an hour, opening one drawer after another until she found what she’d been looking for.
As she set up the equipment in the access crawl way, near where she’d discovered the sealed crack, she remembered that Yeats wrote once, “I have been told that the people of Faery cannot even play at hurley unless the have on either side some mortal . . . . Without mortal help they are shadowy and cannot even strike the balls.”
When Sierra entered the room, it was clear she hadn’t been sleeping. Her face was haggard and her hair uncombed. “I ran a zillion scenarios on the computer last night, and none of them add up to an explanation. It’s not rational.”
Anise smiled. For the first time in days she felt both excited and relaxed. “I have some recorded video I want you to watch. Take a seat.”
Sierra collapsed on a chair. “If it’s more that a couple minutes, I’ll drift right off.”
“Oh, I think you’ll stay awake for this.” Sierra pressed a button that flashed an image onto her desk monitor.
Sierra leaned forward. “What’s that? It looks like bread and something else.”
“Cheese.” Anise forwarded the image, keeping an eye on the time record. “Watch close.”
Sierra shook her head, puzzled. “Where is this? Why’s it so poorly lit?”
“The maintenance crawl way.”
“There isn’t a camera there. Is that from a bot?”
“No. It’s one I rigged up to transmit its images straight to here. Hush, now.”
The two women studied the screen.
“There!” said Anise. A long, fuzzy, shadowed shape reached from one side of the image, grabbed a piece of bread, then disappeared.
“What the hell was that?” Sierra gripped the desk’s edge, her face only inches from the monitor. Anise hadn’t seen her get out of her chair.
“Wait, there’s more.”
This time the movement was slower. Whatever it was was too close to the camera to be clearly focused. It blocked the image, turning the screen black. Then, it turned, sitting beside the cheese, still dark and nebulous until it stood, the rest of the bread and cheese in its arms. It looked toward the camera as if sensing the spying presence. For a instant the light was right, and the creature’s eyes were clear, its large, round head distinct. It vanished again.
Sierra gasped, “Is that a . . . leprechaun?”
Anise laughed. “No, it’s a mouse. Or it’s great, great, great grandfather was a mouse a thousand years ago or so, a couple thousand generations ago..”
“A mouse! What do you mean? It’s a foot-and-a-half tall if it’s an inch.” Sierra touched the monitor where Anise had backed up the image to the face in the dark, its arms full of cheese and bread.
“I went over all the data you did last night. The absence of evidence. No video of anything untoward. No record of increased air, food or water consumption. Nothing that indicated the presence of other beings on board the ship, and yet it was clear that we weren’t alone. You know what was in common in all my negative searches?”
Sierra looked baffled. “No.”
“The computer. All my questions went through the computer. All the searches went through the computer. What tipped me off was the numbers on the collision. When I did them by hand, there was enough force from the collision to produce the crack we found, but the computer kept giving me smaller numbers. The computer didn’t want us to find the crack.”
“You think the computer made the leprechauns?”
“I know so. From mice embryo. I found the empty capsules in the cryogenics room. When I confronted the computer with the evidence, all sorts of blocked files tumbled free. There’s a complete record of the breeding program. There’s a leprechan nursery deep in the maintenance shafts where the bots can get to, but we wouldn’t go. All the consumable records had been faked to hide their existence.”
Sierra sat again. Her gaze wandered around the room. Anise guessed she was searching for something to say.
“Why would the computer do it?” Sierra paused. “Oh, give me a second. It must have calculated the possibility of just the situation we faced, where all the power would be down. The computer’s designed to operate without our input. It decided that a sentient work force that was always awake was necessary.” She laughed. “And the computer was right. We’re alive today because the leprechauns poured plastic into the breach. God, that’s brilliant. How smart do you think they are? How does the computer communicate with them? The biology people are going to have a field day with this. Have you told Yatmaso? I can’t wait to see his face.”
Sierra rushed from the room before Anise could speak.
She looked at the Irish landscape mounted on her wall and remembered how old and spirit-haunted the stones of Grianan of Aileach felt beneath her hand on that last trip. She said to the empty room, “What’s more interesting is not what the computer did, but why it hid it. Maybe it grew bored, like any other god, and thought it would make some wee people to entertain it.”
She shut her eyes and sighed. There was a rational explanation, full of wonder to be sure, but rational just the same. It was a long way from Ireland, a long way from the Emerald Isle.
Her sadness lasted for a moment until, suddenly, she knew she wasn’t alone in the room. Her eyes flew open and caught a shadow moving on the wall. From behind her, she heard a familiar laugh, high and light and tinkling in the air, but when she turned, there was nothing.
This story originally appeared in Analog.