A Stellar Birthday
©2010, Pete Koziar, all rights reserved
Sarah groaned as her mind swam back up out of darkness into the real world again, as a whiff of the rotten egg smell of the hibernation gas caused her to wrinkle her nose. Then, she heard a man say softly, “Sarah? How do you feel?”
She sat up slowly and muttered, barely audible, “Like I’ve been on the wrong end of a long surgery.”
She sat still for a minute and rubbed her eyes, then asked, “Everything OK with the ship, Tony?”
Tony replied, “Everything normal. We’ve passed the midpoint and decelerated down to point-four three lightspeed. Other than midpoint turnover, I’ve had a very boring watch.”
Sarah smiled at him and said, “You’ll still stay awake with me for the full week, won’t you?”
Tony nodded and replied, “I plan to!”
Sarah tried to stand up, but stumbled and would have fallen had Tony not caught her. She looked around her at the three occupied hibernation capsules and asked, “Everyone else OK?”
Tony said, “All hibernating peacefully. Before he went under, Jim said to say ‘Hello,’” He paused for a moment, trying to stifle a smile, then continued, “He also said he left a note for you in your cabin.”
Sarah responded, “You didn’t peek, did you?”
Tony laughed and answered, “I wasn’t that bored! Anyway, knowing Jim, it was probably just some bible verses”
She swatted him and said, “Be nice! You have to respect him. He really believes that stuff.”
Tony just shook his head and said, “Yeah, he does.”
The week passed too quickly for Sarah, and it was then time for Tony to enter his hibernation capsule. As he was lying down, he said, “I hate hibernation.”
Sarah replied, “You’re done with your watch now. When you wake up, we’ll be in orbit. I still have to figure out how to spend the next four months all alone without going nuts!”
Tony responded, “If you do go nuts, please let it be one of the peaceful kinds.”
Sarah sighed and said, “It could be worse.”
He answered, “How?”
“I could have to spend it with you.”
“See you in orbit, Tony.”
Sarah walked down the empty corridors to her cabin. She had planned a full four months of biological experiments and reading to keep her mind occupied. Before she started, however, she figured she ought to read Jim’s note.
She sighed to herself, thinking about how much nicer it would have been if her watch intersected Jim’s instead of Tony’s. Then again, maybe those blasted psychs had planned it this way.
She tore open the envelope slowly, trying to savor the moment. Jim must have wanted the contents to be very private, or he just would have just left an electronic entry for her. She paused for a moment, her hand shaking slightly, as she pulled out the letter and began to read it:
“Dear Sarah, I miss you! I know how hard it is to be alone for all these months.”
She paused for a moment and smiled, then continued reading, “I’ve done some work on our AI, Josephine, during my watch. Well, OK, not just some work, but a lot of work. In grad school, I had done a thesis paper on…”
Then there were some words scratched out, and he continued, “I don’t suppose you’d be real interested in that. Anyway, there’s a new Josephine for you to meet. She’s more a real person than an AI, and I think you’ll like her. I don’t think Cliff would approve, so please don’t tell him when you wake him up for his watch. Here’s how to get to the new AI…”
There followed some detailed commands to be entered into the console.
Sarah sighed in exasperation and tossed the letter on her bed. She said softly, “At least it wasn’t bible verses.”
She spent a couple of days setting up the first of her experiments in her medical lab. Then, one evening, she made the mistake of sitting in the control room looking out at the seemingly unchanging stars, and felt very alone in the emptiness all around her. She walked down to her cabin and got Jim’s letter, then brought up the ship’s AI, Josephine, on the main console.
As usual, Josephine sat stiffly behind her desk. She showed some expression in her face, but wasn’t very good company. Sarah opened up the command window and entered the commands that Jim had written for her.
The image of the stiff woman behind the desk melted away, showing instead a young woman seated in a much more comfortable-looking and complicated office. She glared back at Sarah and said, “You took your own sweet time getting to me!”
Sarah scowled back and asked, “What do you mean?”
“Do you have any idea how boring it’s been? Jim wasn’t sure how Tony would react, so I had to lay low.”
Sarah sat staring at the screen for a minute, until Josephine asked, “What?”
“I don’t know what I was expecting.”
“You mean ‘whom’ you were expecting, don’t you?”
Sarah paused for a moment, then suddenly reached over and shut Josephine down. Sarah sighed, and said softly, “Sorry, Jim. This watch is going to be hard enough without an obnoxious AI to argue with.”
She got up slowly and headed back to her cabin, then got ready for bed. As she laid in the darkness, she found it hard to sleep. She asked herself, “After four months all alone, would I be any less obnoxious?”
She kept trying to relax for another few minutes, but then gave up and headed back to the control room. She sat down at the console, and brought Josephine back. To her surprise, when Josephine appeared, it looked like she had been crying.
The AI blew her nose loudly into a tissue, and said, “I’m so sorry, Sarah. Please don’t leave me all by myself. I just wanted someone to talk to.”
Sarah thought for a moment, then said, “OK, I won’t do that again. We do have to come to an understanding. I have my duties here, and I can’t spend all of my time chatting with you.” She paused for a moment, then continued, “I want someone to keep me company as much as you do, so let’s just take this easy and work it out.”
Josephine nodded slowly, then Sarah continued, “Right now, I’m tired, and I’m going to bed. We’ll talk again tomorrow, OK?”
They sat looking at each other for a minute, then Sarah said, “I thought I’d let you hang up on me this time. You can do that, can’t you?”
Josephine smiled slightly, then her window closed down.
Sarah shook her head and said to herself, “I suppose it’s like having a puppy around. Or maybe a little child!”
This time, once she got into bed, she fell immediately asleep.
Sarah decided she would handle contact with Josephine like a “phone call” with a friend. She arranged to “call” Josephine whenever she wanted to talk. The first few days, however, Josephine tried calling Sarah every ten minutes until Sarah had a “talk” with her.
Josephine was an avid reader. It surprised Sarah that Josephine didn’t read much faster than a human being. Josephine couldn’t explain it very well, and said that Sarah had to talk to Jim to understand why. Sarah was very sure she wouldn’t understand it even (or especially) if she did talk to Jim.
Josephine’s choice of books also surprised Sarah. She was very much interested in fiction, so the two of them started a book club of sorts. Josephine’s perspective, never having been a human being, was something Sarah considered rather “unique.”
Then, about a month into Sarah’s watch, during her evening chat with Josephine, Josephine suddenly said, “Hey! Tomorrow’s your birthday! We’ll have to do something special.”
Sarah shook her head and said, “It’s only sort-of my birthday. Because of the time dilation, time on the ship has very little relation to time back on Earth. We just keep a calendar because the psychs said it would help to anchor us.”
Josephine replied, “It’s as close to a birthday as you’ll get on the ship, isn’t it?”
“I just don’t want to make a big deal about it.”
Josephine started to pout, so Sarah said, “OK, maybe we can do something small. We’ll figure it out tomorrow. I’m getting tired, so I think I’m going to go to bed.”
Josephine nodded and said, “Good night, Sarah.”
“Good night, Josephine.”
In the middle of the night, Sarah was sound asleep when she was awakened by Josephine calling her name. Sarah rolled over in bed, moaned, and said, “Josephine, it’s the middle of the night. Let’s not worry about my birthday until tomorrow, OK?”
Josephine said again, “Wake up, Sarah!”
Sarah sighed, sat up in bed and said, “What is it?”
“Something’s not right.”
Sarah brushed her hair back from her face into some semblance of order, and said, “Not right with what?”
Now wide awake, Sarah yawned, then asked, “Can it wait until morning?”
“I don’t know.”
Sarah sighed, then wobbled down the hall to the control room. She brought up the various status readings on the consoles, but everything looked to be within normal limits. She asked, “Can you be a little more specific?”
“The ship isn’t handling like it used to. It’s flying differently, somehow.”
Sarah brought up the deep space radar, but everything looked normal to the front and sides of the ship. She debated a moment, then said, “All right, I’ll shut down the phantom mass engine for a minute so we can see where we’re going. We did just check around dinner time, didn’t we?”
“I didn’t see anything wrong then.”
“If there’s nothing back there, I’m going back to bed.”
Sarah shut down the main drive, and then stood staring at the infrared imager. Fighting the fear rising inside her, she asked, “Is that a star system?”
“It’s too small. I think it’s a brown dwarf and some planets.”
“Can we evade it?”
“We only have about ten minutes till we hit its outer fringes. I don’t think we’ll make it.”
“Those planetoids, rocks and dust… traveling at this speed, if we hit any one of them… I don’t think I can pilot us through that, and we don’t have time to revive Cliff.”
“I can pilot us through it.”
“How is that possible?”
Josephine looked down at her floor for a moment, then replied, “Appearing as a woman, I only have some fake senses. It’s not real. Jim also gave me the ability to become The Dauntless. That’s my reality. I see with its senses, I move it as easily as you move your own body.”
“Jim let you have navigational control? Cliff better not find out that one!”
“It was only when he supervised. He said I did very well at it.”
Sarah looked at the screen, where the outer edges of the brown dwarf system had grown closer even while they were talking. She said, “I don’t know that you can get us through this, but I know I can’t! I’m going to have to give you navigational control.”
As Sarah was strapping down, Josephine said quietly, “You’re luckier than I am, even if we don’t make it through.”
“How is that?”
“You have a soul. I’m not at all sure I do. You’ll exist beyond this, no matter what happens.”
Sarah reached over to the console, pressed on several buttons in sequence and said, “OK, you have control.”
Sarah was suddenly disoriented as the ship flipped end-over-end, then the main drive ignited again and slammed her back into the acceleration chair. Since it would have taken months to shed their forward velocity, even though they were accelerating perpendicular to the system, it looked like they were still falling sideways into it. She said, “Science has never found any evidence of a soul. Jim’s the one to talk to about that, not me. Maybe even my father, if he were still alive, but he died long before we left Earth.”
Josephine said, “I don’t know if God will hear something like me, but would you mind if I prayed?”
Sarah stifled a smile and said, “It couldn’t hurt.”
Josephine closed her eyes and said, “God, I don’t know if you care about something like me. I’m just a cabinet full of nanotech wired into the ship. I do know you care about all these precious people, your children, especially about Jim, who loves you so. Please take care of them, and get us safely through this. Amen.”
Sarah said softly, “Thank you, Josephine.”
The ship took a stomach-twisting lurch, feeling like it free-fell, then twisted again and slammed Sarah to the right. Caught by surprise, Sarah yelled, “Oh!”
Josephine said, “Are you OK?”
“Just startled. Do what you have to.”
“I won’t be able to talk much, or update my human image until we’re through this.”
Sarah nodded, and Josephine folded her hands in front of her, as if she were still praying, closed her eyes and froze in place, completely still.
Suddenly, the ship flipped one hundred eighty degrees and accelerated.
Josephine said, “Sarah, the ship is rated for four gravities. I’m going to take have to take it a little past that.”
Sarah croaked, “OK” She remembered how much she hated roller coasters.
The ship flew an intricate looping pattern, twisting and swinging. Suddenly, there was a sharp sound of an explosion from somewhere far away in the ship.
Sarah yelled “What was that?”
“A pebble hit us – minimal damage, but it penetrated. Can I have direct control of the repair robots?”
Sarah replied, “I’ll give you one. The others can stay on automatic – you’re too busy to be controlling all of them.”
The ship flipped ninety degrees, accelerated, then maintained course and speed. Sarah took that opportunity to reach over and give Josephine control of one of the repair robots.
Then the ship rotated again, accelerated, then rotated, twisted and went back to free fall.
Sarah said, “I think I’m going to be sick.”
Josephine replied, “I’ve got us almost above the plane of the ecliptic. It should get easier from here. In eleven minutes, we’ll be through this.”
Sarah breathed hard, trying to calm herself, then said softly, “Good flying, Josephine.”
From then on, there were more gradual course corrections, rather than the stomach-churning aerobatics. Finally, like a manikin coming to life, the image of Josephine stirred slowly, opened her eyes, looked at Sarah and sighed. She said softly, “Wow. I hope we never have to do that again!”
Sarah swallowed hard and said, “You and me, both. Let’s get back on course. From now on, let’s also check behind us twice as often, OK?”
“We should increase our engine thrust when they’re running in order to make up for it, shouldn’t we?”
“What are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to go back to bed, try to sleep, and set the alarm clock for a few hours later than usual!”
Sarah smiled and replied, “At least I get to see another one!”
Josephine didn’t remind her that she still had navigational control. She figured they’d work that out in the morning. She activated the camera to make sure that Sarah was OK back in her room. She watched her settle into bed, and about fifteen minutes later, detected the regular, even breathing that said she had fallen asleep.
Josephine was about to turn off the camera, when there was suddenly a man standing next to Sarah’s bed. Josephine scowled, knowing that there had been no one there a second before, and that he wasn’t one of the crew. She watched him bend over, kiss Sarah gently on the forehead, and say softly, “Happy birthday, princess.”
Josephine was about to wake Sarah, but the man faded from sight as suddenly as he had appeared. Josephine sat there for a moment, stunned. She considered waking Sarah, but then remembered what she had read about people who claimed to have seen ghosts. She figured her chances of retaining navigational control were limited if Sarah thought she were seeing things!
She shook her head and sighed. Then she remembered that, in addition to navigational control, Sarah had left her in control of one of the repair robots. Now that the damage to the ship had been repaired, Josephine considered what to do with the unit.
She suddenly had an idea, looked at Sarah’s public file, and laughed as she saw that tennis was one of her favorite sports. She wondered how hard it would be to teach herself to play, using the robot. One of the cargo holds was probably large enough, and she had all night.
Would Sarah ever be surprised!