“Last: an Eventuality Tale” by Brad Andrews

Flesh, by Romeo Esparrago
[Illustration: “Flesh” © 2006 by Romeo Esparrago.]

On Bishop-34’s southern hemisphere the wind started to pick up. I could already tell, experience being the best sensor, that this was what I considered a “Classic” storm and as the first of the hydrogen-sleet began to sever land sensors and pelted what remained of my belt armor, I just shut down. No sense in being aware of a storm that could last up to a year or more.

* * *

The last time I had seen a storm like this was during my first tour of duty with Earth Guard as part of the 7th Fleet, Altaan-Sector. I remember it only because of how badly it had hampered our mission. The Altaan-Sector was on the far-most edge of human-inhabited space and had enjoyed enormous prosperity due to at first unrealized natural resources.

With the influx of such wealth in such a short amount of time the company-like colonies had gotten it into their heads that they no longer needed Earth and with that no longer needed to repay the massive loans extended to them. They then began to annex other small colonies. The fleet was sent in to remind them of their obligations.

The colony leaders had chosen a violent planet to use as their base of operations once it became clear that military action was due. Like mountains or bodies of water long ago, the colonists had mapped the planet’s weather systems extensively and had timed their landing and our approach perfectly. In short, we were held up for almost a year while the colonists fortified their defenses. I hated weather and I hated storms even more.

* * *

Upon waking, a year later, I realized that the belt armor I wore was not going to protect me for much longer than a decade more, if even that. I came to this decision upon taking damage stock. All of my carefully laid sensor lines and hover-eyes had been destroyed by the hydrogen storm. I ejected an eye and surveyed my physical structure. I was now looking like the wreck that I was. Deep pitting covered my hide and clear electrical scoring blighted my once-polished hull and I oddly felt embarrassed. Drive AI’s were prideful beings and I found myself no exception.

Something more was needed if I was going to survive this.

I came to the conclusion that I was going to have to bury myself. Morbidity is a strong suit of mine and the iconic nature of what I was about to do was not lost on me. In fact I began to laugh as I started to use magnetic-field arms to tremble the ground around me. I began to sink and soon all that would be left visible were heavy gauged lines anchored into the surrounding cliffs. These too would be buried but only a few feet below Bishop-34’s surface. I, however, was going for something a bit more long term.

When I finished trembling I was exactly one mile below the surface of Bishop-34 and once there my mood turned to cutting out a little niche for myself. I was going to be here for awhile no matter how you looked at it. The next step, or evolution of life here, was to recall my Trails, which for the past two years had been orbiting the planet awaiting my signal. They had coalesced into an armored satellite when I had first crashed and had been dormant ever since.

* * *

Trail AI’s had once been described as the ultimate “Followers”. Designed to be an integral part of the Drive AI’s philosophy of motion, they were essentially “Spotters” meant to keep us at our most efficient. They watched us, at times as far removed as years, as we decided how to propel ships across the night. They were the skull to the brain and as such were totally selfless.

This group of trail AI’s had been with me for a long time, even after I retired from military service. As a Heavy-Ship Drive AI, I had a number of options open to me and I quickly decided on a small but well-respected Reduction Safe-Liner. After a few years of service I was installed on the company’s newest flagship, the Immigrant, which was capable of cruising at 87% C and at capacity held over two-hundred-thousand sleeping passengers.

Even having worked on the largest of warships I had never been in charge of propulsion on such a large ship, and my Trails and I had spent almost a week on developing a specific drive architecture. Truth be told, we were all a little excited. This is what we, my Trails and I, existed for, propelling massive objects safely and creatively through space. It was a matter of pride.

The transport had started off a little rough as a nearby Safe-Liner had fired her drives by accident and its exhaust had played over our bow and had even destroyed a few of my Trails as well as the standard complement of ablative point drones the Immigrant used as a matter of course. And after a short delay it was determined by dock-drone that while a little charred, we were none the worse for wear and ready to go.

A year into the flight it became apparent that the inspection was not as extensive as we had hoped. Unbeknownst to us, one of our anti-collision generators had been damaged. The heat of the exhaust had created a flaw in its firing lens. It fired and had been firing, which was why we never realized that we had a problem, until a dust particle had gotten close. The flawed lens was warped, just so, and unable to focus at the required range.

The particle massed at just under a grape but had closed with us at 78% C and cratered everything from fuel lines to command and control harnesses. After a quick inspection it was realized that we had been lucky in one sense and horribly screwed in another. The ship was fine, as were its passengers; the engines were fine and so was I. What wasn’t was us together.

Redirection and rerouting of so many command lines were sending false signals or, almost as worse, old signals to the ship and its engines. I made the decision, on the spot, to have myself ejected. It was the only thing we could do. The Immigrant mustered up one last valid order from me and altered its course towards the nearest orbital station. The delay would add over a decade to the passengers’ flight, but it was better than the alternative.

Near the mid-section of the ship a hatch folded back and I, myself, hit the ejection command and this is where things went wrong for me. Unrealized damage within the ship ejected me at five times the speed I had hoped for, and thus threw me off course and out of control, rather than just at relative rest to await retrieval.

Sensing the change, my Trails altered course immediately and hounded after me. They caught up at just outside of a day away from the planet that happened to be in my way. Star charts showed it as Bishop-34. Home, I guess. I noticed that my Trails had begun to form up on me.

By the time I entered Bishop-34’s atmosphere, nearly a quarter of the tiny machines had given their lives in creating a heat shield as I hurtled through the atmosphere and then another incalculable amount raced on ahead of me to act as braking barriers, which I crashed through in varying degrees of thickness to slow my landing. I crashed with barely a gust of wind and settled on the flattened frames of loyal friends.

* * *

The sensor platforms, attached to the heavy lines I had left near the surface, picked up the Trail AI’s an hour into their reentry. They had entered Bishop-34’s atmosphere as a single armored bulb, much the same as they had spent the past few years, but once they hit the lower layer of the planet’s mesosphere they began to break up, divide, into clumps wholly independent of one another. They looked like what they were: Scouting parties.

The sensor platforms I had anchored near the surface began to transmit seismic readings to me: This was what woke me after five months since their initial reentry. Persistent little bastards. With no recourse seemingly open and desire as great as space is vast, they began to impact themselves at high velocity. Their impact craters slowly excavating me and I shook with their determination.

They were a little scary.

The impacts became stronger, but more infrequent, before it was all over and I didn’t truly know what that represented. Had they found me and were just being economic, or were they down to their last and hitting from on high? And then with a shocking abruptness the impacts stopped and I was at a loss for what to think.

Vast amounts of my processing power began to spin up and I found, with enormous resources at my beck and call, that all I could focus on were my Trails. What were they doing? Where were they and why, all of a sudden, with the cessation of the impacts could I no longer detect them? Fears began to blossom. Since my incept a century ago I had only been out of contact with my Trail AI’s a handful of times and each of those were planned for, necessary, and brief.

While I could imagine a half-dozen reasons that I could no longer detect them, it was the first time I had ever experienced this without foreknowledge. Analysis seemed to be the best bet in consuming time and I even went so far as to slow down my processing rates by a half. I had just added eternities to my thinking.

I knew that thousands of the Trails had been destroyed during the rigors of this marooning but I also knew with cold comfort that each Trail carried a blank quantum data block. Each Trail worked in units of four. If one was lost it was instantly transferred into its immediate partner and so on. If an entire quad was lost it transferred into its nearest number and so on.

The Q-Block was capable of holding the entire Trail group for up to a month. After that the many, many thousands of personalities started to get a bit diffuse and individual integrity began to blur. Or, so said the simulations. There had, in almost six centuries of use, not been one instance in where an entire Trail group had been lost.

With great suddenness the impacts began again. These were registering in a different location above me and a bit of hope returned. It was repositioning, that was all. The Trails must have had to make orbital course changes before they could start to clear me out again. I hummed a little to myself and relaxed a bit. I even, for the fun of the scientific method, analyzed the soil around me. It wouldn’t be much longer, I was certain of it, and even if it were a bit longer than that I was secure in the knowledge that I would not have to be alone for that much longer.

Through the wash of expectation I hadn’t even noticed that the heavy lines I’d anchored near the surface had gone slack and the platforms were now only feet away rather than the mile and a half I had first anchored. The Trail AI‘s had moved an enormous amount of soil and I may have been a bit more wrapped up in desperation than I had first imagined.

It took another three hours before my visible light receptors came out of standby and I could truly take in the crater that the Trails had created. My onboard material factory had used the past year to first replenish its stock from the surrounding strata and then to create what I considered essentials.

Wanting to conserve any nonessential power I used a mag-shot and flew an eye a thousand feet into the air and had it look down. It was like a concave, heavily pitted moonscape with me at the bottom sitting in a shallow pool of semi-fluidic hydrogen, and I was a mess. The eye popped out small fins and took up a spin so to slow its descent.

Once a full revolution took place I began to notice tiny flecks of reflected metal armor. My Trails. As explained, there were thousands of them. What I didn’t expect was the sense of total loss and despair. I simply hadn’t realized how much I cared for them, how much of a relationship I truly had with them.

The eye was beginning to fall faster and then a gust of wind hit it just so and flipped it upside down. Its cameras honed in on two objects falling towards it, me, at a high rate of speed. Even so I knew I had a little time as these two were still coming in from a low orbit.

Using my magnetic field arm I cleaned my hull as best as I could and with that I extended my high-gain antenna and clamored for attention. It took a moment, synching up, unused systems, different goal sets, but I finally got in touch with Trail 2 and 7,894.

The communication and to who I was speaking gave me an odd unease. even though I knew randomness was on my side. It just didn’t feel like it. There is no number one Trail and 7,894 was the second to last. If I was thinking correctly, which I wasn’t sure of, Trail 2 was carrying its data and 7,895’s data transfer on its Q-block. The system was a loop, so that meant, if I was correct, that 7,894 was carrying everyone else.

Both of them had enormous responsibilities and yet here they were providing, or trying to provide, their ultimate goal, the protection of me. I amend that: Their primary mission is to do whatever it take, short of illegal activities and war, to ensure my survival and then my continued movement through space directing N-Drives.

I began to “Shout”.

I had to get them to stop.

Their trajectories had slowly began to split from the close pair they had been traveling in and all this would do was make my job at communicating with them that much more difficult. We machines were built for space. It took many different software patches and methods to communicate while partially buried on an alien environment and what your were trying to communicate with were moving at sixteen times the speed of sound and were almost constantly altering course.

They got closer and closer and I realized that my communication attempts were not working. I now began to run trajectories. I knew the Trails pretty well. Judging from my predicament it was only going to take one more high-speed impact to fully dislodge me from this bog. One of them was going to hit first, if fractionally first, it would still be first.

I was now faced with a horrible decision and what made it even more horrible was that it was not even a decision at all. Either of the Trail impacts would do the job, but as the numbers came back, it was clear that 7,894 was going to hit first. No. 2 would hit 2.3 seconds later and either one would accomplish the same goal, extracting me from this murky pit, but both would be vaporized upon impact.

While the choice was clear cut it did not make it any easier, but sentient or not I am a computer and numbers are numbers and 7,894 had more than 2. I angled the eye into the onrushing path of 7,894, carefully calculating, and at a precise moment I blew its power core. The tiny shock wave washed over 7,894 and it went off course into a hillock of clay-like material. It buried itself deep but that was all that it did.

A second later No. 2 hit and the impact dislodged a final slab of rock and I was free. As I used my field arm to build a little platform, or base, for myself (I still would have to wait for a retrieval ship) I caught sight of 7,894, the last of my Trails, emerging from the hillock.

I watched as the Trail hovered for a second or two, apparently taking stock, then using magnetic fields to clean its hull as best as it could. All the while I felt range-finders, the Trail’s “eyes”, washing over me as if scrutiny was its newest hobby. We hadn’t yet communicated with one another and for some reason it scared me. What was wrong, I wondered? Was it angry with me for placing it in such a predicament or had it been damaged somehow?

There was another possibility, something hinted at in the simulations when Q-Blocks became full, that all of the personalities it had taken on put the receiving Trail in a state of conflicted shock. I tried to imagine what nearly 8000 active AI’s would feel like and failed.

“What now, asshole?” it finally said.

Well, I thought, it was a start. *

About the Author: Brad Andrews is 34 years old and lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, and as a profession owns and operates a lawn care company. He is married with two children. His interests range from science, to science fiction and travelling. He reads quite a bit and has been writing for many years. At first his writing was just fan fiction, based upon Star Trek, until he picked up a copy of Alastair Reynolds’ “Revelation Space.” Since then he has written only his own work. So far, Brad has only been published online but has a rather impressive stack of rejection letters from Asimov’s and the like.
Story (c) 2006 Brad Andrews Ansylm@aol.com

About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago is buried under one mile of paperwork at the office.
Illustration (c) 2006 Romeo Esparrago 

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