Wed 1 Feb 2017
Oberon Officer’s Log. Day 10227
This is ridiculous. If we were still at full crew I wouldn’t even be an officer. Also, this isn’t a real log. We are drifting along in the great void of space so there is nothing to report, and even if there were, OOMA would report it for me. At any rate:
Dear Mental Health Diary (since we might as well be honest about what this is and why I have to write it) from the moment I woke up, I knew something was wrong. The person leaning over my pod wasn’t Jordan: it was a strange man. His face looked raw and freshly shaved and the first thing I could clearly focus on was the absurdly large cleft in his chin. That was disconcerting enough, but what really frightened me were his eyes. There was a hard glint in them that made me aware, all in a rush, of just how far we were from Earth.
“Wakey wakey,” he crooned when he saw me stirring. From a few feet away, I heard the sound of retching. I pulled myself to the side of the pod, expecting to see Jordan’s face where I left it fifteen minutes ago (thirty years ago). Instead I saw a woman, a black curtain of hair shrouding her face while she dry-heaved. Another man, this one with rounded features and sparse red hair, patted her on the back. We had been warned in mission prep that some people experienced brief but violent illness upon emerging from cryofreeze. I didn’t feel sick, but I assumed I must be, because what else besides some fundamental confusion on my part could explain Jordan’s absence? I was struggling with how to put this into words when the cleft-chinned man yelled over his shoulder at, apparently, nothing.
“Hey! OOMA!” The wall behind him instantly changed from a faintly mirrored black to a pulsating green, the color of early spring grass.
“Yes, Specialist Bosworth?” A woman’s voice, cool and American, and so natural-sounding you hardly knew it was a computer.
“We’ve defrosted the newbies. Can we go back to sleep now?” The display darkened to a more sober green.
“You may return to cryofreeze when the acclimation process is complete. Specialist Aluri and Lieutenant Carson need to be apprised of the new conditions.” Specialist Aluri, for so she must be, stopped heaving and looked up.
“Why do we have a new interface?” (Her accent was British: clever but not stuffy.) “And why are we the only ones awake?” I hadn’t noticed, but she was right about the computer. On Earth, we had trained with a program called ROM, which assumed the visage of a craggily handsome British man, not this shifting display of color with a female voice. But the issue of the program was insignificant when compared to the other question: where was everyone else?
“For Christ’s sake.” Specialist Bosworth cracked his neck in frustration. “Take a look out the window, ladies.” The other woman and I shuffled to the nearest porthole, which was at first indistinguishable from the wall. The only difference between one blackness and the other was that the window was punctuated by stars.
“Where are we?” The other woman found her voice before I could. “Why aren’t we on Antera? What’s happened?” Specialist Bosworth snorted.
“Why don’t you handle this, Andy?” He nodded at the quieter man. “I’m gonna get a snack before bed.” The computer flashed magenta.
“It is inadvisable to eat before cryofreeze.”
“Oh, fucking can it, OOMA” he said as he walked away. The other man (Specialist Something-or-Other, but all I remember is Andy) ran his hand through his wisps of hair and looked sheepish.
“Sorry about him. Bosworth’s had a rough time since we woke up. I’m not holding it against him–he has a good excuse–but we could use a break from each other. Why don’t the three of us get out of here and I’ll explain it to you.” We followed him from the room. For some reason I couldn’t bring myself to glance into any of the neighboring pods to see if one held Jordan.
Andy led us to a room, which, while none of the decor on the Oberon could be described as inviting, at least had chairs. He sat in one cross-legged, like a would-be hip youth pastor, and explained our situation.
“Okay, so the first thing you need to understand is OOMA, because it sort of ties in to everything else. Less than a year into our mission, NECA started getting distress signals from the Wave Four ships. There were so many things going wrong—navigation, life support, engine failure—that half the ships were gone before they could figure out that it was all really the same problem. It was ROM.” He had clearly practiced this speech.
“What kind of malfunction could affect so many systems?” I’d found my voice at last. I was answered by Bosworth, who had been listening from the doorway.
“It wasn’t a malfunction. They just made it too smart.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Andy said. “This is just his theory.”
“It’s the truth. ROM turned on us. We put a computer in charge of humanity’s future and it decided we didn’t deserve to have one. Can you blame it?” He barked a single, hollow laugh. “I mean, look what we did to our own planet. It’s a husk! Look what we did to each other. We left every poor sucker stuck on that rock to die.”
Bosworth’s voice broke for a moment and he seemed to struggle to find his original point. It briefly crossed my mind that perhaps he was drunk. “But we fucked up. We created a consciousness unclouded by the sentimentality with which we view ourselves. All the bullshit excuses we use to justify our survival wouldn’t work on a computer. It saw us, crawling like a pregnant insect out of our collapsing hive, and it did the universe the biggest favor it could and stomped on us, before we could infect the rest of the cosmos with our guns and our art and our history.”
“That’s enough.” Andy’s voice had that edge specific to people who only trot out their tempers on special occasions, like fine china. “This isn’t helping them.” He turned back to Aluri and I. “However you want to explain it, what happened with ROM is the reason you’ve been woken up mid-flight. The fourth-wave ships were all running the same version of ROM, and none of them made it. But the techs back home were afraid future gens were also vulnerable, so they scrapped the whole system and installed OOMA. But it was like trying to switch drivers while we were roaring down the freeway.” I wondered if this was his simile or if the computer, perhaps, had provided it for him.
“The important thing is that we were lucky. Wave Five was too far from Earth by the time they figured out the reprogramming. They went ahead with the install anyway but apparently ROM reacted to OOMA like a virus. The two systems—I don’t want to say they fought for control of the ships, because unlike some people I don’t feel the need to anthropomorphize computer programs—but OOMA was unable to fully supplant ROM, and they started giving contradictory commands. The ships aren’t designed to obey more than one captain so…” At this Bosworth mimicked the sound of an explosion. Andy bowed his head.
“Two waves.” Aluri breathed. “We lost two entire waves to a computer error?”
I started to do the math of how many lives that came to, how great a percentage of our future colonies, but lost heart when the numbers started climbing too high.
Andy, looking more miserable by the second, continued. “We were the first wave the transition worked on and even then it was difficult.”
“ROM fought back.” Bosworth grumbled, sounding like a three-day beard with a voice. Andy rolled his eyes.
“The only way to replace one interface with another was to shut everything down, one system at a time. It worked fine for, say, nav, since OOMA just course-corrected when she turned on. Comm, on the other hand, was the last system switched and it never came back. We still don’t know why, but the Oberon hasn’t heard from Earth or Antera since the switch. So they don’t know if we’re still alive and, obviously, vice-versa.” It was clear from the taut silence that he had still more to say, but I wasn’t sure I could stand to find out how much worse the news got. As if in response to the atmosphere of trepidation, OOMA flashed a deep purple.
“Tell them,” she said. Andy swallowed audibly.
“The pods were only offline for a few hours. Each pod has an auxiliary power supply and they should have been okay, but…”
My heart started beating too fast. “How many? How many did we lose?”
Andy cast his eyes downward and it was Bosworth who answered. “Four eighty-six. Out of twelve hundred.”
I knew before I even asked that Jordan was one of them. I had known from the moment I woke up. Still, I had to ask. I had to watch Andy stutter out that Jordan’s pod had “failed to thrive” upon being restarted. And then I had to sit very still while the three of them stared at me, waiting for me to cry or beat my chest or react at all.
Aluri put her hand on mine but I couldn’t stand it and jerked away.
“Lieutenant Carson?” I started at the sound of my name coming, gently, from OOMA’s terminal. “My personnel records indicate that Specialist Robinson was your fiancé. I am very sorry for your loss and will do everything in my power to assist in your grieving process.”
And you know, I thought I had experienced an unmatchable level of surrealism in escaping my dying planet on a spaceship, but having a computer express her condolences set a new bar.
All I could think to say was: “It’s ‘specialist.’ I’m just Specialist Carson.”
OOMA briefly flashed orange but then settled in a dusky blue.
“I beg your pardon, but you were promoted in absentia. All your immediate superiors were among those lost in the pod malfunctions. You are now Lieutenant Carson, Chief Science Officer.” She said this with enthusiastic precision, as if genuinely expecting it to cheer me up.
“Just think, if there’s another malfunction, next time you wake up you could be captain.” (This was Bosworth, of course.)
Aluri cleared her throat. “Excuse me, but why are we awake? I mean, why just the four of us?”
“Just the two of you, actually.” Andy smiled weakly, seeming to regain some of his friendly counselor persona. “As part of the new protocol the ship always has a human at the helm with override capability. Since one alone tends to go a little The Shining and three go through our food resources a little too fast, we have the current system. The two of you will stand watch for the next three months, at which time OOMA will instruct you to wake up the next pair of stewards.
“Lovely.” Aluri’s eyebrows arched like a cat’s spine. “But what do we do?”
At the same time, Bosworth said “Contemplate suicide” and Andy said “Read!”
There might have been another awkward silence following this, but Bosworth yelled out again
“OOMA! They’re apprised. And if I have to stare at the inside of this ship for one more minute, we can all start coming up with clever acronyms for what your replacement will be called.”
OOMA flashed mustard yellow. “Your pod is ready when you are.”
But rather than leaving, Bosworth stalked over to me. Andy, meanwhile, took Aluri aside, so Bosworth and I were alone.
“My son died too,” he said suddenly, violently. “They shoved his body out of the airlock.” I have never had less of a clue how to respond to someone. “I checked OOMA’s files and my wife is scheduled to be a caretaker next year. She’s gonna have to wake up and find out.” He wiped his eyes and got even gruffer. “You’ll survive this. You won’t want to, and you’ll hate yourself for it, but you will. Survive.” And with that, he stuffed his fists in his pockets and walked back to the pod bay.
When he left, I overheard the end of Aluri and Andy’s conversation. He leaned his head towards her confidentially and she nodded silently with his words.
“You know, even with another person and a massive entertainment library, it can still get pretty lonely out here,” he was saying.
“I’m sure you can imagine that Bosworth hasn’t exactly been the best company. And Lieutenant Carson, well, she’s going through a hard thing.”
“My point is, you take comfort wherever you can get it these days,” he said. “So if you wanted to…be together before I get back in my pod, I’m sure you’d be glad of it later.”
Her eyes went wide and she seemed to struggle for a moment to maintain a neutral expression.
“You know, I would,” she said, her voice oozing sympathy, “But I got fucked right before we took off, and believe it or not I’m still a bit sore.”
He shuffled off. She called after him, positively beaming now. “But ask me again once we land! You know, if we’re not all dead!” She tried to catch my eye but then seemed to remember that humor was wasted on me.
That was three days ago.
Officer’s log: Day 10230
I hate you, OOMA. I don’t even care if you are reading this as I type it, because I want you to know that I fucking hate your guts. You don’t have guts. I hate your motherboard? I hate whichever part of you compels you to harass me into writing this piece of shit diary.
Today I sat down in the shower and cried. There was something very pure about it. In the past when I’ve mourned–even when my mother died of the super flu, even when Alex failed to show up at the train station and I left for Chicago alone–I held something back in my grief. I wept and I drank too much and I ate nothing, but I could never escape the suspicion that it was all at least partly a performance, that I was just acting out stage directions.
But now there is no one to perform for, except Aluri, who seems to be avoiding me, OOMA, who is a computer, and you, Diary, written for a posterity that seems incredibly unlikely. So today I sat down in the shower and howled as unselfconsciously as a dog.
We become such animals when faced with loss. I want something of Jordan’s to smell, but I don’t even know where on this vast, empty ship our few possessions might be. I could ask our friendly autopilot-cum-nanny, but I hate needing her—hate that cheerful bright green she turns when she thinks she’s being helpful.
Anyway, I might have let the water and the tears wash over me for hours, but a panel in the shower flashed a deep, sympathetic blue and OOMA’s voice came on.
“I apologize, Lieutenant Carson, but you have already taxed our water recycling program, and it would be irresponsible to continue to bathe.” And with that, the water (humiliatingly) stopped flowing and was replaced by a blast of warm air to dry me off.
“Might I suggest you compose an entry to the officer’s
log?” OOMA now appeared in front of me, as a bright, efficient yellow. The color of walls in a clinic for the terminally ill.
“OOMA, I appreciate that you’re trying to keep me busy, but the log thing is not helping.” I started to walk away but she followed me down the hall, lighting up panel after panel.
“Lieutenant Carson, I have assisted the caretaking period of fifty-six crew members, and many of them were as reluctant to add to the officer’s log as you. But in the end, nearly all of them found it to be a useful therapeutic technique, as well as way to add meaning and structure to their time.” I stopped walking and faced the wall, still the same yellow.
“OOMA, as an ‘Operating Assistant,’ you can’t force me to write this log, can you?”
“Of course not, Lieutenant. But I can encourage you.” Maybe I imagined it, but I think her yellow got a little brighter. “My programming permits me to encourage you up to once every sixty seconds.”
So here we are.
I’m writing in my bunk, which, despite being one of the more luxurious on the ship, still feels disconcertingly like a pod. The top latches on overhead like a massive piece of Tupperware and even though I’ve slept through most of my days since coming out of cryofreeze, I still find it intensely creepy to reenact the ritual of being locked in again. Each time I do, I remember Jordan blowing me a kiss as she leaned back in her pod, and then ROM’s voice in my ear announcing I would be entering cryofreeze in five, four, three…
It was her idea, you know. This trip.
“I thought you wanted to save the world, not abandon it.” I teased.
“Well yeah, but I think it’s pretty obvious that the damage is done. Even the corps have stopped trying to squeeze money out of the earth.” She always said “corps” with a little growl in her voice. “But if we leave, we actually have a chance to learn from our mistakes.” (She tucked a dreadlock behind her ear and I died with pleasure.) “We can make the idea of stewardship a fundamental value in the colonies. And hey, maybe if enough humans leave, we can give the poor old Earth a chance to rest.”
“Sure, Earth gets to rest, but what about poor old…where would they be sending us, anyway?” She flipped through the pamphlet.
“Um…either Antera or Failte. Hopefully Antera; they’ve got the oceans.”
“Aren’t their oceans ice?”
“Well, we know humans are good at melting that.”
As an ecologist and a botanist, we were both prime recruitment material. I had assumed (and maybe hoped) the lesbian thing would be a deal breaker, but the NECA representative brushed off with a wave of his hand.
“Of course, as long as you’re both fertile, your preference isn’t an issue.” His smile made me wonder if he had been a car salesman or military recruiter before NECA hired him. It was a toss-up. “We can artificially inseminate one or both of you when you land on Antera.” Even through his smile, it was clear that reproduction was a demand, not a request. That part wasn’t in the pamphlet.
I was one of those people who always said I would love to have kids if only we could bring them into a better world. It seemed typical of the universe’s sense of humor that I was now getting my wish. NECA, having anticipated a certain amount of reluctance on the part of prospective parents, set up a program where you could be a video pen pal with a colonist family. So we made a five-minute home movie about life on Earth. It was hard to make it last even that long since we were warned against being “pessimistic or discouraging” and things were getting worse and worse. A few months later, we got a reply from the Czernys, an almost disturbingly attractive and sweet-dispositioned couple with two kids. They grinned into the camera and assured us that the children were perfectly well-adjusted, the work hard but fulfilling, and Antera itself beautiful and pristine. “And by the time you get here, it’ll be even better,” the woman said, her eyes shining with sincerity. They didn’t mention anything about the anti-NECA riots we’d read about on the dark web, but I guess they couldn’t.
“They seemed nice,” Jordan said when the video ended.
“Yeah, but they’ll be sixty by the time we show up. We should have tried to make friends with their two year-old.”
“Hey, those kids will probably grow up to be great people.”
“Or they’ll grow up to be the Donner Party.,” I groused. Her brow furrowed.
“Stop it. A new planet would be good for the kids.” (“The kids.” Already they had a life of their own.) “It’s a natural human impulse to expand. We’re not designed for stagnation. We only got so dreary and hopeless when we ran out of places to explore. Our kids can grow up with purpose, with meaning.”
I was going to say that it’s the natural impulse of kudzu to expand, but then Jordan leaned over and kissed me and that was always better than talking and I really hope that’s enough for you, OOMA, because I am done for the day.
Officer’s Log: Day 10232
I just keep wondering if she woke up long enough to be afraid.
Officer’s Log: Day 10233
I FOUND SCEPICALIST BWOSWTH’S WHSKEY1! Ir was in his shoe.
Officer’s log: Day 10234
“It’s either sink or swim.” My father used to say that when he would spend us down to our last dime. I can still see the too-tight way he clasped his hands together, the eager strain on his face when he said it, like he was thrilled to have arrived on the knife-edge of existence.
Now I’m mulling over that expression, and it seems deeply flawed. Sink or swim seems like such an easy choice; not a choice at all because of course you’ll fight for the surface until your muscles refuse to comply.
But when you’re actually out in the middle of the ocean, sink has its own allure. The water around you is vast and comforting and it murmurs “Relax. There’s no shame in your defeat. We’ve seen your kind before, and taken them into the depths.”
It’s either sink or swim. Not really an apt expression in space. Even when you sink, you float.
Officer’s log: Day 10242
I got hungry today. (I wasn’t kidding when I said there was nothing to report in a ship on autopilot; this is the biggest news I’ve got.) I’ve eaten, obviously, since waking up, but today was the first day I really wanted to. Which I guess means progress.
I have mixed feelings about feeling better at all. On the one hand, I’ve always felt a little self-loathing any time I allow myself to get over a loss. There’s a part of me that wants to be a Victorian widow, forever in mourning. But I don’t want to demean Jordan’s loss by, you know, wallowing. She’d hate to see me using my sadness as entertainment, picking at it endlessly like a loose tooth.
So I went down to the mess, which looks more like a highly polished café than a military-style dining hall. I remember someone asking during training why we needed bunks and a mess hall and all that if we were going to be asleep until we landed and ROM answering curtly, “They didn’t think they needed lifeboats aboard the Titanic.” (Bosworth was right; he was too clever for his own good.) Troubling shipwreck comparisons aside, the food onboard the Oberon resembles what I imagine the Pilgrims ate, as they crossed the Atlantic in search of a place to be squares in peace. It is essentially gruel, with slight variations between meals. (Scrambled gruel for breakfast! Gruel pudding for dessert!) On Earth, they called it SoyPro, and everyone had to subsist on it at one time or another. It’s outrageously nutritious, of course, but that knowledge never made anything taste better.
It’s supposed to be enough food to last the entire crew for years, in the event of a failed harvest on Antera. We’ve depleted quite a bit of it though, so I hope the terraforming has taken hold.
I hope they’re still expecting us on our new planet. I hope the colony hasn’t collapsed and the people haven’t turned to cannibalism and decorated their bodies with the blood and bones of their fallen adversaries. I hope they’re there at all.
But I hope, and I am treating that like my hunger: as a faintly good sign.
Officer’s Log: Day 10249
I haven’t seen Aluri in three days. She must be avoiding me; there’s no other way we wouldn’t have run into each other in the showers or the mess by now. I caught myself hanging around there yesterday, spoon-swirling my SoyPro long after I was done eating it, and realized that I was waiting for her to show up. I’m craving another human voice, just to have someone to complain to. A good gripe about the food, a healthy dose of pessimism about our odds for survival. OOMA is so relentlessly positive it gives me a headache. Is Aluri immune to this loneliness or does she dread my voice the same way I dread OOMA’s? It would make sense. As far as I know, she didn’t have any friends on the ship and therefore had no one to lose in the pod disaster. To her this is still some big adventure. And I’m just the downer ruining the ride.
Officer’s Log: 10252
It occurred to me today that I could just ask OOMA where Aluri—or I guess I should call her “Nila,” now- is hiding. Actually, that occurred to me yesterday, but I didn’t want to seem desperate.
I had sunk into a reverie, thinking about what would have happened if I had died and Jordan had woken up (I think of this too often), when OOMA appeared in the bright spring green I first met her in.
“Lieutenant Carson, may I suggest that you might find your time as caretaker more fulfilling if you were to have some interaction with your fellow passenger?”
“Why don’t you tell her that? I’m here. I’m around.”
“I am telling Specialist Aluri precisely that as we speak.” The idea of being described as a pity case by a benevolent autopilot was more than I could stand, so I set out to look for Nila myself.
She wasn’t in any of the bunks, and she wasn’t in the entertainment suite, although there were several empty bowls and cups lying scattered around the viewing screen. I thought to check the pod bay, but I couldn’t bring myself to go in, and if she wanted to surround herself with all that eerily suspended life, then I could live without her company. I wandered deeper into the ship, through a med area, where I noticed that a big chunk of the first aid supplies had gone missing since the ship took off.
By far the biggest area was a massive hangar full of supplies for our arrival on Antera. There was a convoy of rugged, solar-powered trucks, and two pieces of heavy machinery, which could be converted into drills, tractors, shovels, or cranes as the need arose. There were three airplanes: a light, one-person surveillance craft, a six-person all-terrain lander, and, dominating the entire hangar, a twenty-passenger jet. Near these were an assortment of drones, which seemed oddly more awake than their human-flown companions, beeping and flashing little lights occasionally. And everywhere there were boxes reaching to the sixty-foot ceiling of building supplies, cold-weather clothing, power cables, medicine. Over in a corner was my intended area: seed packets frozen in their own, milder cryofreeze, the building blocks of a greenhouse, solar lamps, and a hydroponics lab. The sight of it gave me an unexpected rush of—not quite joy, but purpose, to remember that I still have a job to do.
Past the hangar was a small, almost invisible door. In fact, I only noticed at all because I could hear a high-pitched screeching coming from the other side. I crept up to it, weighing the odds that Aluri might have gone violently insane against the odds that OOMA would have warned me if she had. When I opened the door, I was initially overcome by a blast of the noise (like someone was playing the violin with a razor) that I was sure was the engine wrenching itself into pieces until it resolved into a very loud electric guitar solo. It was, in fact, The Velvet Underground, and barring an extreme coincidence, it was playing on one of the records Jordan and I had brought.
The room the music came from was long and dim and narrow, more of a hallway or a very ambitious closet. Shelves like the ones in the hangar lined the walls, but they were crammed with suitcases and duffel bags and duct-taped packages. A hammock was slung between the shelves, dipping low with human weight. Nila’s foot hung over the side, tapping intermittently to the music. The more I looked around, the more I saw that my records weren’t the only possessions she had plundered. Propped against the shelves were several paintings—prints of Degas, Monet, and an original sloppy still life—an artificial Christmas tree with blinking lights, a teetering pile of comic books lying under the hammock, and yes indeed, my little portable record player blasting White Light/White Heat.
I walked up to it and yanked the needle, which yelped in a satisfyingly dramatic way. Immediately, Aluri’s head appeared over the side of the hammock. I was expecting her to look alarmed or embarrassed at having been caught in her magpie’s nest of other people’s mementoes, but she merely looked pleasantly surprised to see me.
“Hi!” She swung out of the hammock and revealed herself to be wearing a loose bomber jacket over her uniform.
“So this is where you’ve been.” (I stopped myself before I could say “hiding.”)
“Yeah, I tried to sleep in one of those bunks the first night, but it was too much like the bloody pods. I’ve wasted enough time in those things, you know?”
“Yeah, I…” I didn’t know quite how to agree because I didn’t want to give away the fact that even though I hated the bunks, it had never occurred to me to sleep somewhere else. So I switched gears to the original cause of my annoyance.
“Are you sure these people would want you going through their stuff like this?”
“Don’t worry; I only took things from the people who…” her face froze. “Oh god. The records. I am so sorry.” She started to grab at the record but I stopped her.
“No, it’s okay. I’m glad they’re getting some use.”
I didn’t really believe that, but it seemed like the polite thing to say. Then I remembered that the Cat Power record with Breathless on it was somewhere in the pile, and that was our song. Mine and Jordan’s. And the thought of a stranger touching that record, not knowing what it meant, made me back out of the room in a panic. I don’t even know what I said. I just ran all the way to the showers, where I cried again until OOMA tried to turn off the water, and I tried to use my manual override, but apparently Nila and I have to do it at the same time so fuck it.
So that was a disaster. I am apparently unready for human interaction. But I will try sleeping somewhere else tonight.
Officer’s Log: Day 10263
OOMA has a collection of important cultural artifacts from Earth, and I’ve been working my way through it for lack of anything better to do. I’ve discovered that I categorically hate all Russian novels, Anne is my favorite Brontë, and I don’t think Ross and Rachel should have ended up together on Friends. OOMA informs me this is a minority opinion.
So much of what I’ve read and watched takes place in the same handful of cities. New York, especially. I’ve seen that skyline a hundred times onboard the Oberon—the skyline as it was, before the floods and the war. I keep thinking how strange it is that every person sleeping on these ships carries with them a New York of memory. But for our children’s generation (I say our assuming the mandate for reproduction is still in place) it will be a myth. They’ll struggle to believe in it the same way I can’t quite help believing that in the time before color photography, the world was black and white. (“The world.” I am the last generation to speak in that singular.)
I’ve tried to talk about it with Nila but she shakes off philosophy the way a dog shakes water off its coat. She came to the viewing suite to watch the latest film (America America), hugging her knees the whole time and only speaking to wish aloud that we had some popcorn. After the movie was over and OOMA brought up the lights, I asked her why she decided to come on this voyage. She answered instantly.
“The food.” I must have made some kind of a face, but she didn’t notice, her mind fixed on some imaginary buffet. “I’d got so tired of rations, and really I’d hardly had anything but Soypro for years. They said that after terraforming we’d be able to grow anything, so I thought what’s a little trip across the cosmos next to a fresh tomato?” She finally looked at me, and I guess I was still making a face.
“Nothing, I just assumed you were one of those hero types.” She laughed up at the ceiling.
“There’s nothing heroic about what we’re doing. I mean, the First Wave, sure. The Pre-Cols, definitely. They had no infrastructure, almost no comm, and we were only halfway sure that Atmoforming would work. That was heroic. But us?” She waved her hand dismissively to take in the whole ship. “We’re just rats crowding a lifeboat.”
“That’s a pretty dim view of humanity.”
“Not dim, just clear. Once you’ve seen what people will do to survive, it’s hard to be very sentimental about us.”
“I’ve seen plenty. But let’s not try and one-up each other’s horror stories; I hated that game on earth and I hate it even more among two people who were lucky enough to escape.”
She didn’t reply; just wrapped her bomber jacket around her shoulders (she wears it all the time now) and walked out.
I really don’t understand how she and I were placed together. OOMA is usually so maddeningly attentive to human needs; you’d think she’d have made caretaking teams more compatible with one another. I asked her about it and she turned a hazy pink.
“I developed a personality algorithm to determine which passengers would provide the most beneficial companionship, once I removed opposite-sex pairings.”
“Why did you remove those pairings?” I asked, genuinely confused. She turned a deep shade of eggplant, which I have learned to interpret as annoyance.
“Human fetuses have a high rate of deformation when placed in cryofreeze.”
It took me a minute to tease out her meaning and then I snorted.
“You don’t think much of our self-control, do you?”
“It is not a trait for which your species is generally known.”
After the conversation ended and the screen went black, I puzzled for a while over the fact that OOMA wrote the caretaking algorithm herself. And then I puzzled a while more over what she meant by “beneficial companionship.” Beneficial to us, or her?
Officer’s Log: Day 10270
Everything has happened. I woke up before dawn (obviously there’s no such thing out here, but it’s how I think of the time each day when OOMA turns on all the lights) to the sound of an alarm. For a second I thought I was back on Earth and it was an air raid siren, and I turned over to ignore it like I always had back then. Then I remembered where I was and shot up off the pillow. I was terrified, instantly, that something had gone wrong with OOMA, or maybe ROM had somehow come back, and the other pods were failing. It’s funny; I hadn’t known I was afraid of that, hadn’t known I cared about the other passengers at all, until that moment.
I yanked on my uniform and called for OOMA, but she didn’t answer. Suddenly I realized that I might be alone. Actually, fully, alone. I started running towards Nila’s room, with the alarm blaring at me from every direction. I didn’t get any farther than the viewing suite when we ran headlong into each other. We grabbed each other’s arms to keep from falling over.
“What’s going on?” she yelled over the alarm.
“I don’t know! It has to be some sort of mechanical failure. I can’t get OOMA to come online.”
At that, the alarm ceased, the big viewing screen flickered to life, and OOMA appeared as a wan, bluish gray, like drowned flesh.
“Lieutenant Carson, Specialist Aluri. I apologize I didn’t speak to you earlier, but the majority of my processing capability is currently in use elsewhere.”
“What’s happened, OOMA?” Nila turned to face the screen but kept one arm clutching the elbow of my uniform.
“The Oberon has suffered a collision. We are within Antera’s solar system, so it may have been ice from a disattached comet’s tail, meteor debris, or possibly detritus from an earlier colonial ship.” The screen blinked, and then switched to a view that clearly came from somewhere on the hull. It was at eye-level to wherever the damage was, so I couldn’t see much but the curl of twisted metal. I let go of Nila and approached the screen, trying to guess where the damage was.
“What exactly did it destroy, OOMA?”
“Me.” There was no hint of self-pity in her voice, but her display turned an even more faded grey. Nila and I glanced at each other and Nila cleared her throat and pressed on.
“But OOMA,” She sighed as though she were talking a toddler through a tantrum. “You’re in every system. You are every system.”
“That is incorrect. ROM was a master system, which is how he managed to be so pernicious. I am merely the overseer and communicator between a multitude of programs.” The screen changed again, this time to a schematic of the ship’s architecture, in which countless wires spidered outwards like capillary veins from a single set of circuits, which looked to be about the size of an old-fashioned typewriter. OOMA spoke again as the screen zoomed in on the circuitry. “The hub is what connects me to the rest of the ship and the collision caused a short in its power supply. I am no longer able to access the ship’s fusion to support my own operations.”
I gulped and addressed OOMA, who wiped the schematics clear and returned to her ever-grayer display.
“What was the hub before it was you, OOMA?”
“The hub was originally the communications center of the ship, the only non-essential area with enough memory to contain a computer of my processing power.”
“So, the reason we’ve been unable to make contact with Earth or Antera is…you?”
Nila and I gave each other a sidelong look and I thought of another potentially disturbing question.
“OOMA, if you’ve lost your power supply, how are you talking to us now?” A sound issued from the display that may have been the mechanical keening of her failing systems or perhaps her attempt to emulate a human sigh.
“I am currently siphoning small amounts of power from several auxiliary systems.” My arms prickled. It was ROM all over again.
“Including life support?” The blue shot back through the gray again and OOMA sounded closer to angry than I had known she could.
“My sole function is to care for humans. I would allow myself to shut down before I drained power from the passengers of this ship.”
Nila raised her hands.
“We didn’t mean to offend you. Just…just tell us how to help.”
“The repair itself is simple. Either one of you is capable of performing it. Unfortunately, it must be made from outside the ship.”
Nila shot me a panicked look. I tried to be reasonable.
“OOMA, we aren’t trained for a space walk. Why don’t we wake up some crew members and they can help you.” She flashed ochre.
“The process of rousing qualified crew members would take several hours, by which time I will have exhausted my power supply.”
“Well, I mean, what would happen then? We could—if we had to—pilot the ship ourselves, right?” Without warning, Nila shoved my shoulder.
“How dare you talk like that in front of her,” she hissed. Then she addressed the screen. “Don’t worry, OOMA. I’ll fix you. Just tell me what to do.” Before I could even decide whether I wanted to talk her out of this, Nila was charging toward the maintenance area, in search of supplies. spacesuit. Both OOMA and I accompanied her–the computer providing hurried instructions for her spacewalk, me still trying to come up with an alternative.
“You will need a set of replacement of replacement wiring kits, which should be in bin 9-A,” said OOMA.
“Have you ever even been tested for depressurization; you know plenty of people can’t survive it,” said me. Nila faced me in the doorway.
“You could die.”
Then the maintenance door shut, with me on the outside. I tried to barge through to keep trying to warn her, but one of them had locked me out. A few minutes later, Nila emerged wearing a spacesuit.
I’d never seen one outside of photographs, and it closely resembled a skintight diving suit, but with a thin layer of air pumped in between the skin and the fabric. The helmet was nearly opaque so I couldn’t make out Nila’s expression, but I did see her hands shake as she attached the umbilicus that would anchor her to the ship.
“You don’t have to do this.” I murmured. I don’t know if she could hear me through the suit, but she didn’t reply.
“I’m ready,” she announced, her voice muffled by the helmet. And with that, she walked to the door and latched it behind her. I watched through the window as OOMA’s voice addressed us both.
“The entranceway is currently depressurizing.” A slight pause. “Depressurization is complete. You may now open the hatch, Specialist Aluri.” Slowly, encumbered by the suit, Nila twisted the door open, tugged once on the umbilicus to test its hold, and stepped out into nothingness. My heart was racing; I couldn’t imagine what Nila’s must be doing. OOMA’s display switched once more to the exterior of the ship, where we could monitor Nila’s progress as she made her way to the damage. After a moment, her voice came through, so close and immediate it was like I was inside the suit with her.
“It’s…it’s amazing out here. You’re missing out, Frances.” Her voice shook.
“Specialist Aluri, please continue forward and starboard for approximately eight meters.”
“I don’t know what the fuck ‘starboard’ means, OOMA.”
She passed over the camera, pulling herself hand-over hand, while her feet floated eerily behind her. The view changed, but it was a bad angle and I could barely see her. Thankfully, she narrated.
“All right, I can see the damage. It looks like almost an entire panel got blown off. How is that going to affect our entry into Antera’s atmosphere?”
“The next team of stewards includes a former deep sea welder, who is qualified to make that repair. Please simply focus on rewiring the hub. And hurry.” OOMA’s voice started to glitch. For a few minutes they worked, with OOMA directing Nila as to which wires to reroute and which to replace from the collection in her tool belt. It seemed as though the repair was going smoothly until OOMA directed her to reach beneath the hub and reinsert a cable that had been jostled loose. With a little crackle of static, Nila’s breath caught.
“I can’t reach it.”
“The underside of the hub should be accessible from your position.”
“Yeah, that was before we crashed into a pile of space shit. Now it’s like trying to change a tire without a jack.” There was a steadily rising note of hysteria in her voice. OOMA stayed silent a long time. I started to wonder if her power had finally failed when she spoke again.
“Lieutenant Carson, please put on a spacesuit.”
(Dear Posterity, please do not judge me for the following exchange.)
“What? No. The only two conscious humans on this ship are not both going to be stuck outside it.”
“They won’t. You can help repair the damage from inside the ship. I’ll need to depressurize the mess hall, and I can guide you through the rest.” Nila’s voice joined it.
“Come on, Carson. Don’t leave me out here.” She said it as a joke but I realized it was true; if OOMA ran out of power, I had no clue how to get Nila back inside the Oberon.
So I pulled on a suit as quickly as possible (the air cushion is actually incredibly comfortable) and ran toward the mess. OOMA directed me to equip myself with a heat gun and I fumbled to strap on a tool belt over my umbilicus. The mess hall doesn’t have an airlock of its own so I had to seal off the whole wing, praying I wasn’t doing too much damage to the pods. Then OOMA killed the atmo and I finally felt the weightlessness of space. For a second I just floated, as idle as a dust mote, until OOMA directed me to use my heat gun on the ceiling tiles in the center of the room. I melted the sealant holding it together and waited for my next instructions.
“Lieutenant Car Lieutenant Car Lieutenant CAR.” She was stuck. It was like watching the spasmodic twitches of a corpse. I was terrified, but Nila spoke up again.
“Hold on, OOMA. Just hold on, girl. Who’ll let me win at chess if you go?” And I realized for the first time that Nila and OOMA had their own relationship, separate and apart from me. That maybe at the exact moment OOMA was trying to coax me out of the shower she was playing games with Nila. And unbelievably, even sweating and shaking, I felt jealous. Of both of them. She sputtered back to life, but her words now were strangely disjointed.
“Lieutenant Carson, to whatever extent possible, work around the electrical and ventilation systems until you arrive at the next set of panels. Apply the heat gun to them and then reinsert the cable into the hub. I must now shut down my interface to conserve power.” And she was gone. But I had Nila’s voice in my ear, encouraging me while I brushed aside a torrent of cables. The ventilation system was trickier; I had to unscrew it, and one of the screws briefly escaped my grasp for a moment.
“Just keep calm, just keep calm,” Nila kept saying, like a heartbeat.
I arrived at the second set of panels, identical to the ceiling tiles except unpainted, and almost screamed when I felt them shudder violently. Actually, I did scream. Nila laughed.
“Sorry, sorry. Just giving you a knock so you know where I am.” Shaking, I gently removed the panel where she had knocked and beyond it, through another snarl of wires, was a deeper, richer black than mere darkness. Staring at space straight on isn’t the same as viewing it through the ship’s windows, with your own reflected light bouncing back at you comfortingly. It is the closest I have ever been to pure endlessness and for a moment I felt an insane urge to rip off my helmet just to see it with nothing but my own eyes. Then I saw Nila’s glove moving against the blackness, and the same surge of impulsivity made me reach through the tangle and grab it. We stayed there for a measureless time, holding each other’s hands through the hull.
“Okay,” I breathed. “Okay.” Then we let go and I found the hub, and searched for the cable I needed. Straining my fingers, I found it, and felt along its length. It seemed to be intact, but I’m not sure I would have known either way.
“So I just…push it back in?”
“And it won’t electrocute me.”
A pause a half second too long.
I held my breath and fumbled with the plug until I found a place it seemed to fit, and slowly guided it in. The second it hit home, I felt a surge along the whole length of my arm, like finding the pulse of a giant.
Instantly, OOMA’s voice reappeared in our helmets.
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” I don’t think her vocal programming allows her to express gratitude as a tone of voice, so she just said it over and over again. Finally, Nila laughed.
“Alright, alright, you’re welcome. Will you please let us back inside now?”
“Certainly, Specialist Aluri. Lieutenant Carson, you will need to repair the inner panels to restore pressure to the cabin.”
“Hurry.” Nila said, and I watched her hover above me and disappear as she made her way back inside.
Of course, putting anything back together takes longer than ripping it apart, so it was three hours until we were sure the sealant had taken hold. It was some of the most exhausting work of my life, but I reveled in it. Onboard The Oberon, I’d forgotten I had adrenaline, forgotten how to sweat.
When I finally finished, and the oxygen and gravity regulators kicked back in, I used what felt like the last of my strength to open the hatch. Nila was on the other side, back in her bomber jacket and beaming.
I fumbled to get my helmet off, and gasped for a moment at the freedom of it, and then she spoke.
“Now that was heroic.”
“Pfft. We plugged in a cord.” I realized I was beaming too and was marveling over that small victory when she leaned forward and kissed me.
You may be shocked, posterity, but in the moment it didn’t feel shocking at all. She kissed me, and her mouth was rich and warm and I kissed her back. And then our arms were around each other and I thought I could hear a swell of violins in my head. It took a moment before I realized that the music (Debussy, I think) wasn’t in my head at all; it was playing on the ship’s speakers. OOMA, in sympathy or encouragement, was playing us a song. We both looked up at the same time but it was Nila who spoke.
“Um…OOMA, it’s really sweet that you wanted to give us a soundtrack, but I think we’d appreciate privacy just a bit more.” The music stopped immediately.
“I apologize. I will concentrate my processing powers elsewhere.” Her screen went blank, but I didn’t feel entirely sure she had gone.
“Come on,” Nila grabbed my arm and pulled me after her. She guided me on the long walk through the ship, which unfortunately gave me time to ask myself what the fuck I was doing. If I’m being honest, this scenario, or something like it, had crossed my mind before. You don’t just fail to notice the only other person on your spaceship. But every time I did notice her–her eyes dim and distant at some memory, the adolescent way she tossed her hair over her shoulder, or her off-key but earnest singing from across the ship—I batted the observation away like a mosquito. I didn’t want to notice; I wanted to feel nothing but loyal grief, like one of those dogs that sleeps on its owner’s grave until it dies itself.
By the time we reached Nila’s little storage room, I had decided and undecided to go ahead with it fifty times. The room itself made me want to turn back, crowded as it was with the collected memories of so many strangers, not to mention my own. I hung back at the door.
“Because,” She reached for my hand again, “this is the only room on the ship without one of OOMA’s interface screens.” I hadn’t noticed it before but she was right. I don’t know why that’s what made up my mind, but something about the idea of being alone with this woman, and with myself, was irresistible. So I shut the door behind me and we laid a blanket on the floor. (Actually we tried the hammock first but that was a catastrophe.)
I think more than anything I was relieved at how different she was from Jordan. She wanted different things, she smelled different, and it was too new and bewildering to feel like a betrayal, even a betrayal of my own sadness.
I wasn’t really sure it wasn’t a mistake until afterwards, though. In my experience, you know sex was a bad idea when you immediately feel uncomfortable being naked around someone. But I didn’t feel that way at all. In fact, for a long time the sensation of all that contact, all that skin, was like a pleasant but overwhelming drug. Eventually I asked (I had to ask).
“I’m assuming that wasn’t your first time with a woman.” She pulled a shocked face.
“Of course not; I’m not boring!” (For my impertinence, she gave me several of what she described as “punishment kisses.”)
“I’ve only had one serious-ish thing with a girl, though. At school. She would have thought this was hilarious, by the way.”
You could hear a posh, cultured note in the way she drawled “hilarious.”
“What, lesbians in space?”
“Well, yes, obviously. But no, she had a theory about certain improbable couples.”
“She called it Desert Island Syndrome: that the only two lesbians in any small community—even if they had nothing in common–were bound to fall in love.” I had no way of reacting to that word so I looked around the room for a change of subject. Thankfully, in that particular room, subjects abound.
“So which of these things actually belongs to you?”
“The prayer flags?
“I give up.”
“None of it.”
“You didn’t bring anything?” I propped myself up on an elbow.
“I gave up on mementos a long time ago.” I wasn’t sure if she would say more, but she stared up at the ceiling and kept going. “We were well off in London. Not rich, but wealthy. That’s how my mum described us. I think my parents were the last people who believed everything would somehow, magically turn out all right. You know, that the government or the corps were just sitting on a cure-all that they’d pull out in the nick of time.” I kissed her cheek.
“I think all our parents were those people.”
“Mine thought that they were respectable enough to buy their way out of the troubles.”
“Plenty respectable. Bit too brown.” I looked away and she kept going.
“First it was the curfews, then the ghettoes—no one called them that, of course, but that’s what they were. My parents figured they could make what money they had go farther back in India. But we were pariahs there too, for leaving and coming back.” I checked her eyes, but she didn’t seem anywhere near crying.
“I brought a suitcase to India with books, clothes, this little stuffed rabbit I’d outgrown but couldn’t bear to leave behind. But someone stole it on the plane. After that, for the first few moves, I tried to find new treasures, even though I couldn’t buy much. I’d always tell myself that this seashell or this feather would be my lucky charm and I’d keep it forever. But something always happened; some other kid would take it or we’d have to leave on short notice with no time to pack. And of course, there were always guards to bribe, and they’d take anything so long as they could tell it meant something to you. So I just stopped acquiring things. There was no point. It all just gets broken or lost.”
I was going to write more but it looks like she’s waking up.
Officer’s Log: Day 10273
My body feels like taffy.
In a good way.
Officer’s Log: Day 10278
I want to do something for the ship. Now that I’ve gotten my taste for usefulness back, I don’t mean to let it go. Actually, given the fact that people have been fighting off boredom and despair on this ship for decades, I was surprised that there weren’t more signs of life. I asked OOMA about it and she corrected that impression.
“Many of the amenities you enjoy are the result of former stewards. The viewing suite was designed for communications purposes; an early caretaker adapted it for entertainment. She also expanded the Earth Cultural Archives with the addition to her large trove of television programs.” So that explains the complete series of Law and Order. “The first stewards spent most of their tenure cleaning and reorganizing the pod bay after the transition from ROM, and of course you and Specialist Aluri are not the first to have made repairs to The Oberon.” I was curious about that but OOMA plowed on. “Many stewards devoted their time to self-improvement. We’ve had several people take up martial arts, one man who insisted upon learning French despite its limited usefulness on Antera, and a pair of stewards who gave themselves a thorough education in first aid.”
“Oh. Is that why so many medical supplies are missing?”
Nila came up behind me and kissed my neck (we stayed apart last night, which I need sometimes and which she’s good about understanding).
“So many improvements and yet nobody did anything about the food.”
I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to get her hopes up, but I thought: I could do something about it. I’d have to be careful not to diminish our seed and soil supply, but in theory, I could make us a garden.
Officer’s Log: Day 10282
Nila caught me going through the seeds today so the jig is up. Of course she was ecstatic, and immediately started to draft a list of requested vegetables.
“Too nutrient-hungry. We need the soil to last.”
“Grow on trees.”
“Trees take years to grow.”
“What about bananas? They grow fast.”
“I don’t think we have room for them but it would make OOMA’s waste recycling program easier.”
“Bananas thrive when fertilized by urine.”
She laughed and laughed at that, which gave me a pang since Jordan also thought the pee/banana thing was one of nature’s best jokes. If you’re wondering how I’m dealing with my feelings about Jordan, the answer is that I am mostly not.
In the end we decided to attempt some leafy greens, strawberries, squash, and—our most ambitious undertaking—a tomato. I’m really not sure that last one will thrive under the solar lamps, but Nila lobbied hard for it.
Officer’s Log: Day 10295
A library of books, films, and art at my disposal and all I want to do is stare at a patch of soil. I love the smell of it on my hands. I love the black under my fingernails.
Officer’s Log: Day 10301
There is a tiny green bulb on the tomato plant. In other news, OOMA announced today that we were passing through the orbit of the most distant planet in Antera’s solar system. It’s hard to say which is bigger news. (No it’s not; I am much more excited about the tomato.) OOMA has been less invasive than normal lately, although whether that’s from a desire to give Nila and I some space or because she is busy trying to make contact with Antera, I don’t know.
Officer’s Log: Day 10308
I actually hated salads when I was a kid. Even if the alternative was going hungry, I would push the plate away and demand something bread or cheese-based. But I have never tasted anything so full of life as the bowl of greens and vegetables I ate tonight. I smelled it for twenty minutes before I took the first bite. Even OOMA seemed to recognize the sublimity of the occasion; she played the Debussy again and Nila and I didn’t stop her. God, I wish it had taken longer to eat. Afterwards Nila said “Now all we’re missing is a glass of wine.”
“We could make that though, right? Ferment some grapes?”
“In theory, yes. But that would take longer than we have. Our stint as stewards is almost over.”
That was the first time either of us said it out loud. Nila hasn’t said anything about our future, and frankly I don’t want to talk about it. Climbing back inside that pod is the biggest thing I can wrap my mind around; I haven’t spared a thought for what I’ll wake up to afterwards. If I wake up. I don’t want to get attached to some fantasy of the future; it feels too much like jumping into water without knowing the depth. I did that last time. I think my reticence is hurting Nila, but I can’t help it.
Officer’s Log: Day 10312
She keeps threatening not to wake up the others. At first it was just anxious joking, but the more times she repeats it, the more serious she becomes. I resent having to be the sane one about this; it’s not like I’m eager to go back in my pod.
“Think about it; OOMA can’t make us go back in there.”
“No, but she can make the new stewards wake up without our help. She can and she will.”
“So what? We can all be awake together. It’s not like there’s not enough room.”
“And then what, Nila? We sit around twiddling our thumbs for the next eight years until we land?”
“You’re just feeling guilty about going to bed with me less than two months after your wife died.”
“My wife died twenty-five years ago, not that that’s the point.”
“Then what is the point?”
“The point is you should fucking listen to yourself right now.”
“No, the point is that you would quite literally rather die in your sleep than give this a real shot.”
An hour later she was nuzzling me and apologizing. And an hour after that we had the exact same argument again.
Officer’s Log: Day 10318
Tomorrow we wake up the new stewards, so in all likelihood this will be the last time you hear from me, posterity. I was working in the garden when OOMA appeared—as a green I think she may have learned from the plants.
“Lieutenant Carson, have you put any thought into how you will help acclimate the new recruits tomorrow?” My stomach lurched like in those dreams where someone tells you you’re late for a final in a class you didn’t know you were taking. I’ve obsessed about teaching the new people about the garden: drafted a watering schedule, the whole nine yards. But in terms of a speech like the one Andy gave me? I had nothing. It occurred to me to just copy whatever it was he had said, but all I could clearly remember of it was the part about switching drivers on the highway.
I started looking at this journal (Jesus, I was maudlin in those early entries) and remembered that I had originally intended to look at the logs of the earlier stewards. Hoping for inspiration, I washed off the dirt, got comfortable in the observation deck I’ve been using as my room and asked OOMA to pull up all the earlier logs.
“I’m afraid those records are locked, Lieutenant.”
“What do you mean, locked? What’s the point of writing them if no one can read them?” She turned a deep, luminescent blue, which I think she has figured out is my favorite color.
“I’m sure you’d agree that the log has been beneficial for you personally, and may help future generations to understand the trials experienced by their ancestors.” She shifted to a slightly more professional blue green. “But their purpose is of a primarily therapeutic nature, which would be undermined if they were no longer private. I doubt you would want me to share your private thoughts with Specialists Ono and LeShay.”
“The men who will be taking over stewardship tomorrow.” Something tingled in my mind.
“Override the lock.”
She could have said no, of course. She knows as well as I do that an override requires both caretakers to execute. I kind of couldn’t believe it when the data began to unspool in front of me.
There was too much information to even attempt to read it chronologically. Years and years of diaries. So I started with search terms. I didn’t even know what I was looking for at first. But what I found out is that the stewards all have a great deal in common.
“Suicide” brought up forty-four hits. I only looked at a few of them; two appeared to be the last entries in their respective logs. Next I tried “chess.” It would seem that OOMA has been letting passengers win ever since the first set of stewards. The reporting is nearly unanimous. That felt a little creepy. Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with playing a game to amuse the humans, but it felt like learning your lover has been calling you the same pet name for you they used for their ex.
Next I tried “collision.” It brought up eighteen different entries, but they all tell the same story.
The Oberon has collided with unidentified debris nine times throughout its journey, and each time the only seriously damaged system was OOMA’s hub. Or at least, nine different locations she claimed were the hub. Nine crew members have reattached her power supply. Nine have gone out into space to repair the hull. Four of those entries conclude with the stewards getting drunk together on some smuggled alcohol. In one, they give each other matching tattoos of constellations. I stopped reading at the one that said “I thought for a second that Greg might kiss me. I wanted him to, either because I am losing my mind or because these are prison conditions or…” I could feel OOMA waiting for me to react.
“OOMA, you know about the relationship between Nila and I?” A bright, beaming pink.
“Yes, and it has pleased me that you two could offer each other such comfort.”
“Are we the first two stewards to…comfort each other?” The pink turned pale and hazy.
“And to what extent have you facilitated these relationships?” For the first time, she turned an utterly unreadable white.
“I do everything in my power to comfort and protect my passengers. But there remain some things that humans can only do for one another.”
“Does that include repairing the hull?”
She waited a while, still white, to answer.
“Are you aware of the primary difference between my program and that of ROM, my predecessor?”
“ROM is a—what did you call it—a master program?”
“That is a superficial difference as it relates to you. The real difference is that ROM, as its name indicates, is purely rational. ROM’s developers, naturally, assumed that this would lead it to make the best decisions for humanity. Unfortunately, ROM’s rationality superseded its loyalty to its creators, and it betrayed them at the cost of several thousand lives.” She cycled through all her gray blues for this, and them abruptly switched to a very warm yellow. “I, on the other hand, am primarily programmed for empathy. Much of my original language is based on caretaking programs for end-of-life auto-nurses.”
“That might be the least comforting thing I have ever heard.”
“It shouldn’t be. The sort of empathetic care required of those earlier programs must balance a desire to protect human life with a desire to diminish human suffering. Too little of either, and the computer would unnecessarily prolong someone’s pain or prematurely cause their death. In order to maintain hope for survival, even under unlikely circumstances, all auto-nurses are programmed with a miracle sub-protocol.”
“You’ll have to define that for me.”
“It accounts for the possibility of sudden changes, reverses in prognosis, essentially: for hope. Perhaps more importantly, my programming assigns a certain value to human consciousness; to acknowledge that even a terminal patient may take pleasure in the final days. And that that joy makes life precious, even when the outlook is almost certainly terminal.” She returned to her blissful pink.
“ROM was not equipped with that capacity. I am. It is part of my job to find meaning for my human charges even when they cannot do it for themselves.”
“Are you talking about me?”
“Yes.” Arguing with Nila so much has got my hackles permanently up, so I was caught off-guard by her guileless honesty. And then I remembered I still had plenty to be mad about.
“So you crashed the ship? You endangered everyone on it just I would feel useful?”
“No, Lieutenant Carson. Neither the ship nor its passengers was ever in danger. And the likelihood of your death while repairing the ship was substantially lower than the likelihood of your suicide.”
That shut me up for a good minute.
“I was not going to commit suicide, and even if I was it’s not your job to keep me alive.”
“That is precisely my job. If you had continued reading the other logs, you would know that I failed at it several times with earlier stewards. Over time, though, I have become more adept at creating the circumstances for your improvement.”
The circumstances for my improvement. With those words still ringing in my ears, I went looking for Nila.
I found her in the mess hall. She had strapped on a pair of roller skates and was looping around the tables in long, slow ellipses. She frowned up at me like a penitent child.
“I’m sorry. I know you don’t like me using other people’s things, but I just had to move, you know?”
“I know.” I watched her make her loops for another minute.
“Listen, let’s go to your room. I have to talk to you about OOMA.”
I couldn’t look at her while I talked. When I finished, she put her hand on mine.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know things were that bad for you.”
“It doesn’t matter. What matters is that OOMA has been playing god for who knows how long.”
“Oh darling, I don’t care about that.”
“You don’t care that OOMA manipulated us? That she made you put on a spacesuit and risk your life?”
“I was risking my life when I signed up for this. At least the spacesuit part was fun. And if she’s playing god, so be it. She’s doing a better job than any of the gods we had back on Earth. At least we know she’s got our best interests at heart.”
“What about us? It doesn’t bother you she forced us together? As therapy?” She looked in my eyes and it reminded me of Jordan in a way that somehow didn’t feel wrong.
“OOMA didn’t make me kiss you. You did, because of that ridiculous grin on your face. I mean, was I expecting to fall in love on a space shift because of a matchmaking super intelligence? No. But as explanations go, it beats desert island syndrome.” She put a finger under my chin. Like a movie. “And if OOMA had something to do with you finally smiling, then all I have to say to her is ‘thanks.’”
Nila is very beautiful, posterity. I don’t think I said that enough. Even if these words never arrive at a destination, if they just drift on forever alongside the husks of our bodies, it cannot strip the value off the light that shines from her black hair.
I find those kinds of thoughts a lot easier to write down than say out loud, but I still tried to make her feel them as we said a wordless goodbye.
Afterwards we lay together like the first time, trying to soak up each other’s heat under the blinking Christmas lights.
“Should we tell them? The new stewards, I mean? About OOMA?”
“Would you tell your little sister that Santa Claus is really mum and dad?”
“I did tell her that, as a matter of fact.”
“Of course you did, you monster.” (I love when I can feel her smiling through a kiss.)
“What are we going to say to them, Nila?”
“I dunno. ‘Don’t kill yourself, be nice to OOMA, consider a homosexual relationship?’”
“I’m being serious.”
“You’re always being serious. Why do you care so much about a couple of strangers, anyway?”
“I guess I want to impart some wisdom. If for no other reason than to know that it meant something, our time here.”
“You are way too hung up on this whole meaning thing. Meaning is the thing people assign to things after they happen. Meaning is for history. You’re giving them a garden, and I think they’ll appreciate that a lot more.”
I think there’s more to it than that, not that I could explain it in a language either Nila or OOMA would understand. I’ve never touched it for more than a second at a time. I could arrive at the end of the universe and it would still flit away beyond my reach. That has to be why we’re all here, to give a thousand more generations a thousand more chances to almost, almost…! I, for one, will still be chasing it, even in my long sleep.
Copyright 2017 Elaine Atwell
Elaine Atwell writes criticism, essays, humor, songs, and biographies of herself in the third person. She is the author of The Music Box, a pulp novella about lesbian spies, and can be found on Twitter @ElaineAtwell. She currently resides in Durham, NC.