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PROLOGUE: STARSHIP SAGAN
“It’s obvious!” said Vartan Gregorian, standing imperiously before the two others seated on the couch. “I’m the best damned pilot in the history of the human race!”
Planting his fists on his hips, he struck a pose that was nothing less than preening.
Half buried in the lounge’s plush curved couch, Alexander Ignatiev bit back an impulse to laugh in the Armenian’s face. But Nikki Deneuve, sitting next to him, gazed up at Gregorian with shining eyes.
Breaking into a broad grin, Gregorian went on, “This bucket is moving faster than any ship ever built, no? We’ve flown farther from Earth than anybody ever has, true?”
Nikki nodded eagerly as she responded, “Twenty percent of light speed and approaching six light-years.”
“So, I’m the pilot of the fastest, highest-flying ship of all time!” Gregorian exclaimed. “That makes me the best flier in the history of the human race. QED!”
Ignatiev shook his head at the conceited oaf. But he saw that Nikki was captivated by his posturing. Then it struck him. She loves him! And Gregorian is showing off for her.
The ship’s lounge was as relaxing and comfortable as human designers back on Earth could make it. It was arranged in a circular grouping of sumptuously appointed niches, each holding high, curved banquettes that could seat up to half a dozen close friends in reasonable privacy.
Ignatiev had left his quarters after suffering still another defeat at the hands of the computerized chess program and snuck down to the lounge in midafternoon, hoping to find it empty. He needed a hideaway while the housekeeping robots cleaned his suite. Their busy, buzzing thoroughness drove him to distraction; it was impossible to concentrate on chess or anything else while the machines were dusting, laundering, straightening his rooms, restocking his autokitchen and his bar, making the bed with crisply fresh linens.
So he sought refuge in the lounge, only to find Gregorian and Deneuve already there, in a niche beneath a display screen that showed the star fields outside. Once, the sight of those stars scattered across the infinite void would have stirred Ignatiev’s heart. But not anymore, not since Sonya died.
Sipping at the vodka that the serving robot had poured for him the instant he had stepped into the lounge, thanks to its face-recognition program, Ignatiev couldn’t help grousing, “And who says you are the pilot, Vartan? I didn’t see any designation for pilot in the mission’s assignment roster.”
Gregorian was moderately handsome and rather tall, quite slim, with thick dark hair and laugh crinkles at the corners of his deep brown eyes. Ignatiev tended to think of people in terms of chess pieces, and he counted Gregorian as a prancing horse, all style and little substance.
“I am flight systems engineer, no?” Gregorian countered. “My assignment is to monitor the flight control program. That makes me the pilot.”
Nikki, still beaming at him, said, “If you’re the pilot, Vartan, then I must be the navigator.”
“Astrogator,” Ignatiev corrected bluntly.
The daughter of a Quebecoise mother and French Moroccan father, Nicolette Deneuve had unfortunately inherited her father’s stocky physique and her mother’s sharp nose. Ignatiev thought her unlovely—and yet there was a charm to her, a gamine-like wide-eyed innocence that beguiled Ignatiev’s crusty old heart. She was a physicist, bright and conscientious, not an engineering monkey like the braggart Gregorian. Thus it was a tragedy that she had been selected for this star mission.
She finally turned away from Gregorian to say to Ignatiev, “It’s good to see you, Professor Ignatiev. You’ve become something of a hermit these past few months.”
He coughed and muttered, “I’ve been busy on my research.” The truth was he couldn’t bear to be among these youngsters, couldn’t stand the truth that they would one day return to Earth while he would be long dead.
Alexander Alexandrovich Ignatiev, by far the oldest man among the starship’s crew, thought that Nikki could have been the daughter he’d never had. Daughter? he snapped at himself silently. Granddaughter, he corrected. Great-granddaughter, even. He was a dour astrophysicist approaching his hundred and fortieth birthday, his short-cropped hair and neatly trimmed beard iron gray but his mind and body still reasonably vigorous and active thanks to rejuvenation therapies. Yet he felt cheated by the way the world worked, bitter about being exiled to this one-way flight to a distant star.
Technically, he was the senior executive of this mission, an honor that he found almost entirely empty. To him, it was like being the principal of a school for very bright, totally wayward children. Each one of them must have been president of their school’s student body, he thought: accustomed to getting their own way and total strangers to discipline. Besides, the actual commander of the ship was the artificial intelligence program run by the ship’s central computer.
If Gregorian is a chessboard knight, Ignatiev mused to himself, then what is Nikki? Not the queen; she’s too young, too uncertain of herself for that. Her assignment to monitor the navigation program was something of a joke: the ship followed a ballistic trajectory, like an arrow shot from Earth. Nothing for a navigator to do except check the ship’s position each day.
Maybe she’s a bishop, Ignatiev mused, now that a woman can be made a bishop: quiet, self-effacing, possessing hidden depths. And reliable, trustworthy, always staying to the color of the square she started on. She’ll cling to Gregorian, unless he hurts her terribly. That possibility made Ignatiev’s blood simmer.
And me? he asked himself. A pawn, nothing more. But then he thought, Maybe I’m a rook, stuck off in a corner of the board, barely noticed by anybody.
“Professor Ignatiev is correct,” said Gregorian, trying to regain control of the conversation. “The proper term is astrogator.”
“Whatever,” said Nikki, her eyes returning to Gregorian’s handsome young face.
Young was a relative term. Gregorian was approaching sixty, although he still had the vigor, the attitudes and demeanor of an obstreperous teenager. Ignatiev thought it would be appropriate if the Armenian’s face were blotched with acne. Youth is wasted on the young, Ignatiev thought. Thanks to life-elongation therapies, average life expectancy among the starship crew was well above two hundred. It had to be.
The scoopship was named Sagan, after some minor twentieth-century astronomer. It was heading for Gliese 581, a red dwarf star slightly more than twenty light-years from Earth. For Ignatiev, it was a one-way journey. Even with all the life-extension therapies, he was sure that he would never survive the eighty-year round trip. Gregorian would, of course, and so would Nikki.
Ignatiev brooded over the unfairness of it. By the time the ship returned to Earth, the two of them would be grandparents and Ignatiev would be long dead.
Unfair, he thought as he pushed himself up from the plush banquette and left the lounge without a word to either one of them. The universe is unfair. I don’t deserve this: to die alone, unloved, unrecognized, my life’s work forgotten, all my hopes crushed to dust.
As he reached the lounge’s hatch, he turned his head to see what the two of them were up to. Chatting, smiling, holding hands, all the subverbal signals that lovers send to each other. They had eyes only for each other, and paid absolutely no attention to him.
Just like the rest of the goddamned world, Ignatiev thought.
He had labored all his life in the groves of academe, and what had it gotten him? A membership in the International Academy of Sciences, along with seventeen thousand other anonymous workers. A pension that barely covered his living expenses. Three marriages: two wrecked by divorce and the third—the only one that really mattered—destroyed by that inevitable thief, death.
He hardly remembered how enthusiastic he had been as a young postdoc, all those years ago, his astrophysics degree in hand, burning with ambition. He was going to unlock the secrets of the universe! The pulsars, those enigmatic cinders, the remains of ancient supernova explosions: Ignatiev was going to discover what made them tick.
But the universe was far subtler than he had thought. Soon enough he learned that a career in science can be a study in anonymous drudgery. The pulsars kept their secrets, no matter how assiduously Ignatiev nibbled around the edges of their mystery.
And now the honor of being the senior executive on the human race’s first interstellar mission. Some honor, Ignatiev thought sourly. They needed someone competent but expendable. Send old Ignatiev, let him go out in a fizzle of glory.
Shaking his head as he trudged along the thickly carpeted passageway to his quarters, Ignatiev muttered to himself, “If only there were something I could accomplish, something I could discover, something to put some meaning to my life.”
He had lived long enough to realize that his life would be no more remembered than the life of a worker ant. He wanted more than that. He wanted to be remembered. He wanted his name to be revered. He wanted students in the far future to know that he had existed, that he had made a glowing contribution to humankind’s store of knowledge and understanding. He wanted Nikki Deneuve to gaze at him with adoring eyes.
“It will never be,” Ignatiev told himself as he slid open the door to his quarters. With a wry shrug, he reminded himself of a line from some old English poet: “Ah, that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
Alexander Ignatiev did not believe in heaven. But he thought he knew what hell was like.
* * *
As he entered his quarters he saw that at least the cleaning robots had finished and left; the sitting room looked almost tidy. And he was alone.
The expedition to Gliese 581 had left Earth with tremendous fanfare. The first human mission to another star! Gliese 581 was a very ordinary star in most respects: a dim red dwarf, barely one-third of the Sun’s mass. The galaxy is studded with such stars. But Gliese 581 was unusual in one supremely interesting way: it possessed an entourage of half a dozen planets. Most of them were gas giants, bloated conglomerates of hydrogen and helium. But a couple of them were rocky worlds, somewhat like Earth. And one of those—Gliese 581c—orbited at just the right “Goldilocks” distance from its parent star to be able to have liquid water on its surface.
Liquid water meant life. In the solar system, wherever liquid water existed, life existed. In the permafrost beneath the frozen rust-red surface of Mars, in the ice-covered seas of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, in massive Jupiter’s planet-girdling ocean: wherever liquid water had been found, life was found with it.
Half a dozen robotic probes confirmed that liquid water actually did exist on the surface of Gliese 581c, but they found no evidence for life. Not an amoeba, not even a bacterium. But that didn’t deter the scientific hierarchy. Robots are terribly limited, they proclaimed. We must send human scientists to Gliese 581c to search for life there, scientists of all types, men and women who will sacrifice half their lives to the search for life beyond the solar system.
Ignatiev was picked to sacrifice the last half of his life. He knew he would never see Earth again, and he told himself that he didn’t care. There was nothing on Earth that interested him anymore, not since Sonya’s death. But he wanted to find something, to make an impact, to keep his name alive after he was gone.
Most of the two hundred scientists, engineers, and technicians aboard Sagan were sleeping away the decades of the flight in cryonic suspension. They would be revived once the scoopship arrived at Gliese 581’s vicinity. Only a dozen were awake during the flight, assigned to monitor the ship’s systems, ready to make corrections or repairs if necessary.
The ship was highly automated, of course. The human crew was a backup, a concession to human vanity unwilling to hand the operation of the ship completely to electronic and mechanical devices. Human egos feared fully autonomous machines. Thus a dozen human lives were sacrificed to spend four decades waiting for the machines to fail.
They hadn’t failed so far. From the fusion powerplant deep in the ship’s core to the tenuous magnetic scoop stretching a thousand kilometers in front of the ship, all the systems worked perfectly well. When a minor malfunction arose, the ship’s machines repaired themselves, under the watchful direction of the master AI program. Even the AI system’s computer program ran flawlessly, to Ignatiev’s utter frustration. It beat him at chess with depressing regularity.
In addition to the meaningless title of senior executive, Alexander Ignatiev had a specific technical task aboard the starship. His assignment was to monitor the electromagnetic funnel that scooped in hydrogen from the thin interstellar medium to feed the ship’s nuclear fusion engine. Every day he faithfully checked the gauges and display screens in the ship’s command center, reminding himself each time that the practice of physics always comes down to reading a goddamned dial.
The funnel operated flawlessly. A huge gossamer web of hair-thin superconducting wires, it created an invisible magnetic field that spread out before the starship like a thousand-kilometer-wide scoop, gathering in the hydrogen atoms floating between the stars and ionizing them as they were sucked into the ship’s innards, like a huge baleen whale scooping up the tiny creatures of the sea that it fed upon.
Deep in the starship’s bowels the fusion generator forced the hydrogen ions to fuse together into helium ions, in the process giving up energy to run the ship. Like the Sun and the stars themselves, the starship lived on hydrogen fusion.
Ignatiev slid the door of his quarters shut. The suite of rooms allotted to him was small, but far more luxurious than any home he had lived in back on Earth. The psychotechnicians among the mission’s planners, worried about the crew’s morale during the decades-long flight, had insisted on every creature comfort they could think of: everything from body-temperature waterbeds that adjusted to one’s weight and size to digitally controlled décor that could change its color scheme at the call of one’s voice; from an automated kitchen that could prepare a world-spanning variety of cuisines to virtual reality entertainment systems.
Ignatiev ignored all the splendor; or rather, he took it for granted. Creature comforts were fine, but he had spent the first months of the mission converting his beautifully wrought sitting room into an astrophysics laboratory. The sleek Scandinavian desk of teak inlaid with meteoric silver now held a conglomeration of computers and sensor readouts. The fake fireplace was hidden behind a junk pile of discarded spectrometers, magnetometers, and other gadgetry that Ignatiev had used and abandoned. He could see a faint ring of dust on the floor around the mess; he had given the cleaning robots strict orders not to touch it.
Above the obstructed fireplace was a framed digital screen programmed to show high-definition images of the world’s great artworks—when it wasn’t being used as a three-dimensional entertainment screen. Ignatiev had connected it to the ship’s main optical telescope, so that it showed the stars spangled against the blackness of space. Usually the telescope was pointed forward, with the tiny red dot of Gliese 581 centered in its field of view. Now and then, at the command of the ship’s AI system, it looked back toward the diminishing yellow speck of the Sun.
Being an astrophysicist, Ignatiev had started the flight by spending most of his waking hours examining this interstellar Siberia in which he was exiled. It was an excuse to stay away from the chattering young monkeys of the crew. He had studied the planet-sized chunks of ice and rock in the Oort cloud that surrounded the outermost reaches of the solar system. Once the ship was past that region, he turned his interest back to the enigmatic, frustrating pulsars. Each one throbbed at a precise frequency, more accurate than an atomic clock. Why? What determined their frequency? Why did some supernova explosions produce pulsars while others didn’t?
Ignatiev batted his head against those questions in vain. More and more, as the months of the mission stretched into years, he spent his days playing chess against the AI system. And losing consistently.
He looked up from the chessboard he had set up on his desktop screen, turned in his chair, and directed his gaze across the room to the display screen above the fireplace. The lovely, smiling face of the artificial intelligence system’s avatar filled the screen.
The psychotechnicians among the mission planners had decided that the human crew would work more effectively with the AI program if it showed a human face. For each human crew member, the face was slightly different: the psychotechs had tried to create a personal relationship for each of the crew. The deceit annoyed Ignatiev. The program treated him like a child. Worse, the face it displayed for him reminded him too much of his late wife.
“I’m busy,” he growled.
Unperturbed, the avatar’s smiling face said, “Yesterday you requested use of the main communications antenna.”
“I want to use it as a radio telescope, to map out the interstellar hydrogen we’re moving through.”
“The twenty-one-centimeter radiation,” said the avatar knowingly.
“You are no longer studying the pulsars?”
He bit back an angry reply. “I have given up on the pulsars,” he admitted. “The interstellar medium interests me more. I have decided to map the hydrogen in detail.”
Besides, he admitted to himself, that will be a lot easier than the pulsars.
The AI avatar said calmly, “Mission protocol requires the main antenna be available to receive communications from mission control.”
“The secondary antenna can do that,” he said. Before the AI system could reply, he added, “Besides, any communications from Earth will be six years old. We’re not going to get any urgent messages that must be acted upon immediately.”
“Still,” said the avatar, “mission protocol cannot be dismissed lightly.”
“It won’t hurt anything to let me use the main antenna for a few hours each day,” he insisted.
The avatar remained silent for several seconds: an enormous span of time for the computer program.
At last, the avatar conceded, “Perhaps so. You may use the main antenna, provisionally.”
“I am eternally grateful,” Ignatiev said. His sarcasm was wasted on the AI system.
As the weeks lengthened into months he found himself increasingly fascinated by the thin interstellar hydrogen gas and discovered, to only his mild surprise, that it was not evenly distributed in space.
Of course, astrophysicists had known for centuries that there are regions in space where the interstellar gas clumped so thickly and was so highly ionized that it glowed. Gaseous emission nebulae were common throughout the galaxy, although Ignatiev mentally corrected the misnomer: those nebulae actually consisted not of gas, but of plasma—gases that are highly ionized.
But here in the placid emptiness on the way to Gliese 581 Ignatiev found himself slowly becoming engrossed with the way that even the thin, bland neutral interstellar gas was not evenly distributed. Not at all. The hydrogen was thicker in some regions than in others.
This was hardly a new discovery, but from the viewpoint of the starship, inside the billowing interstellar clouds, the fine structure of the hydrogen became almost a thing of beauty in Ignatiev’s ice-blue eyes. The interstellar gas didn’t merely hang there passively between the stars, it flowed: slowly, almost imperceptibly, but it drifted on currents shaped by the gravitational pull of the stars.
“That old writer was correct,” he muttered to himself as he studied the stream of interstellar hydrogen that the ship was cutting through. “There are currents in space.”
He tried to think of the writer’s name, but couldn’t come up with it. A Russian name, he recalled. But nothing more specific.
The more he studied the interstellar gas, the more captivated he became. He went days without playing a single game of chess. Weeks. The interstellar hydrogen gas wasn’t static, not at all. It was like a beautiful intricate lacework that flowed, fluttered, shifted in a stately silent pavane among the stars.
The clouds of hydrogen were like a tide of bubbling champagne, he saw, frothing slowly in rhythm to the heartbeats of the stars.
The astronomers back on Earth had no inkling of this. They looked at the general features of the interstellar gas, scanning at ranges of kiloparsecs and more; they were interested in mapping the great sweep of the galaxy’s spiral arms. But here, traveling inside the wafting, drifting clouds, Ignatiev measured the detailed configuration of the interstellar hydrogen and found it beautiful.
He slumped back in his form-fitting desk chair, stunned at the splendor of it all. He thought of the magnificent panoramas he had seen of the cosmic span of the galaxies: loops and whorls of bright shining galaxies, each one containing billions of stars, extending for megaparsecs, out to infinity, long strings of glowing lights surrounding vast bubbles of emptiness. The interstellar gas showed the same delicate complexity, in miniature: loops and whorls, streams and bubbles. It was truly, cosmically beautiful.
“Fractal,” he muttered to himself. “The universe is one enormous fractal pattern.”
Then the artificial intelligence program intruded on his privacy. “Alexander Alexandrovich, the weekly staff meeting begins in ten minutes.”
* * *
Weekly staff meeting, Ignatiev grumbled inwardly as he hauled himself up from his desk chair. More like the weekly group therapy session for a gaggle of self-important juvenile delinquents.
He made his way grudgingly through the ship’s central passageway to the conference room, located next to the command center. Several other crew members were also heading along the gleaming brushed chrome walls and colorful carpeting of the passageway. They gave Ignatiev cheery, smiling greetings; he nodded or grunted at them.
As chief executive of the crew, Ignatiev took the chair at the head of the polished conference table. The others sauntered in leisurely. Nikki and Gregorian came in almost last and took seats at the end of the table, next to each other, close enough to hold hands.
These meetings were a pure waste of time, Ignatiev thought. Their ostensible purpose was to report on the ship’s performance, which any idiot could determine by casting half an eye at the digital readouts available on any display screen in the ship. The screens gave up-to-the-nanosecond details of every component of the ship’s equipment.
But no, mission protocol required that all twelve crew members must meet face-to-face once each week. Good psychology, the mission planners believed. An opportunity for human interchange, personal communications. A chance for whining and displays of overblown egos, Ignatiev thought. A chance for these sixty-year-old children to complain about each other.
Of the twelve of them, only Ignatiev and Nikki were physicists. Four of the others were engineers of various stripes, three were biologists, two psychotechnicians, and one stocky, sour-faced woman a medical doctor.
So he was quite surprised when the redheaded young electrical engineer in charge of the ship’s power system started the meeting by reporting:
“I don’t know if any of you have noticed it yet, but the ship’s reduced our internal electrical power consumption by ten percent.”
“I haven’t noticed any reduction.”
The redhead waved his hands vaguely as he replied, “It’s mostly in peripheral areas. Your microwave ovens, for example. They’ve been powered down ten percent. Lights in unoccupied areas. Things like that.”
Curious, Ignatiev asked, “Why the reduction?”
His squarish face frowning slightly, the engineer replied, “From what Alice tells me, the density of the gas being scooped in for the generator has decreased slightly. Alice says it’s only a temporary condition. Nothing to worry about.”
Alice was the nickname these youngsters had given to the artificial intelligence program that actually ran the ship. Artificial Intelligence. AI. Alice Intellectual. Some even called the AI system Alice Imperatress. Ignatiev thought it childish nonsense.
“How long will this go on?” asked one of the biologists. “I’m incubating a batch of genetically engineered alga for an experiment.”
“It shouldn’t be a problem,” the engineer said. Ignatiev thought he looked just the tiniest bit worried.
Surprisingly, Gregorian piped up. “A few of the uncrewed probes that went ahead of us also encountered power anomalies. They were temporary. No big problem.”
Ignatiev nodded but made a mental note to check on the situation. Nearly six light-years out from Earth, he thought, meant that every problem was a big one.
One of the psychotechs cleared her throat for attention, then announced, “Several of the crew members have failed to fill out their monthly performance evaluations. I know that some of you regard these evaluations as if they were school exams, but mission protocol—”
Ignatiev tuned her out, knowing that they would bicker over this drivel for half an hour, at least. He was too optimistic. The discussion became quite heated and lasted more than an hour.
* * *
Once the meeting finally ended Ignatiev hurried back to his quarters and immediately looked up the mission logs of the six automated probes that had been sent to Gliese 581.
Gregorian was right, he saw. Half of the six probes had reported drops in their power systems, a partial failure of their fusion generators. Three of them. The malfunctions were only temporary, but they occurred at virtually the same point in the long voyage to Gliese 581.
The earliest of the probes had shut down altogether, its systems going into hibernation for more than four months. The mission controllers back on Earth had written the mission off as a failure when they could not communicate with the probe. Then, just as abruptly as the ship had shut down, it sprang to life again.
“Alexander Alexandrovich,” called the AI system’s avatar. “Do you need more information on the probe missions?”
He looked up from his desk to see the lovely female face of the AI program’s avatar displayed on the screen above his fireplace. A resentful anger simmered inside him. The psychotechs suppose that the face they’ve given the AI system makes it easier for me to interact with it, he thought. Idiots. Fools.
“I need the mission controllers’ analyses of each of the probe missions,” he said, struggling to keep his voice cool, keep the anger from showing.
“May I ask why?” The avatar smiled at him. Sonya, he thought. Sonya.
“I want to correlate their power reductions with the detailed map I’m making of the interstellar gas.”
“Interesting,” said the avatar.
“I’m pleased you think so,” Ignatiev replied, through gritted teeth.
The avatar’s image disappeared, replaced by data scrolling slowly along the screen. Ignatiev settled deeper into the form-adjusting desk chair and began to study the reports.
His door buzzer grated in his ears. Annoyed, Ignatiev told his computer to show who was at the door.
Gregorian was standing out in the passageway, tall, lanky, egocentric Gregorian. What in hell could he want? Ignatiev asked himself.
The big oaf pressed the buzzer again.
Thoroughly piqued at the interruption—no, the invasion of his privacy—Ignatiev growled, “Go away.”
“Professor Ignatiev,” the Armenian called. “Please.”
Ignatiev closed his eyes and wished that Gregorian would disappear. But when he opened them again the man was still at his door, fidgeting nervously.
Ignatiev surrendered. “Enter,” he muttered.
The door slid back and Gregorian ambled in, his angular face serious, almost somber. His usual lopsided grin was nowhere to be seen.
“I’m sorry to intrude on you, Professor Ignatiev,” said the engineer.
Leaning back in his desk chair to peer up at Gregorian, Ignatiev said, “It must be something terribly important.”
The contempt was wasted on Gregorian. He looked around the sitting room, his eyes resting for a moment on the pile of abandoned equipment hiding the fireplace.
“Uh, may I sit down?”
“Of course,” Ignatiev said, waving a hand toward the couch across the room.
Gregorian went to it and sat, bony knees poking up awkwardly. Ignatiev rolled his desk chair across the carpeting to face him.
“So what is so important that you had to come see me?”
Very seriously, Gregorian replied, “It’s Nikki.”
Ignatiev felt a pang of alarm. “What’s wrong with Nikki?”
“Nothing! She’s wonderful.”
“I … I’ve fallen in love with her,” Gregorian said, almost whispering.
“What of it?” Ignatiev snapped.
“I don’t know if she loves me.”
What an ass! Ignatiev thought. A blind, blundering ass who can’t see the nose in front of his face.
“She … I mean, we get along very well. It’s always fun to be with her. But … does she like me well enough…” His voice faded.
Why is he coming to me with this? Ignatiev wondered. Why not one of the psychotechs? That’s what they’re here for.
He thought he knew. The young oaf would be embarrassed to tell them about his feelings. So he comes to old Ignatiev, the father figure.
Feeling his brows knitting, Ignatiev asked, “Have you been to bed with her?”
“Oh, yes. Sure. But if I ask her to marry me, a real commitment … she might say no. She might not like me well enough for that. I mean, there are other guys in the crew…”
Marriage? Ignatiev felt stunned. Do kids still get married? Is he saying he’d spend two centuries living with her? Then he remembered Sonya. He knew he would have spent two centuries with her. Two millennia. Two eons.
His voice strangely subdued, Ignatiev asked, “You love her so much that you want to marry her?”
Gregorian nodded mutely.
Ignatiev said, “And you’re afraid that if you ask her for a lifetime commitment she’ll refuse and that will destroy your relationship.”
Looking completely miserable, Gregorian said, “Yes.” He stared into Ignatiev’s eyes. “What should I do?”
Beneath all the bravado he’s just a frightened pup, uncertain of himself, Ignatiev realized. Sixty years old and he’s as scared and worried as a teenager.
I can tell him to forget her. Tell him she doesn’t care about him; say that she’s not interested in a lifetime commitment. I can break up their romance with a few words.
But as he looked into Gregorian’s wretched face he knew he couldn’t do it. It would injure the young pup; hurt him terribly. Ignatiev heard himself say, “She loves you, Vartan. She’s mad about you. Can’t you see that?”
“You think so?”
Ignatiev wanted to say, Why do you think she puts up with you and your ridiculous posturing? Instead, he told the younger man, “I’m sure of it. Go to her. Speak your heart to her.”
Gregorian leaped up from the couch so abruptly that Ignatiev nearly toppled out of his rolling chair.
“I’ll do that!” he shouted as he raced for the door.
As Ignatiev got slowly to his feet, Gregorian stopped at the door and said hastily, “Thank you, Professor Ignatiev! Thank you!”
Ignatiev made a shrug.
Suddenly Gregorian looked sheepish. “Is there anything I can do for you, sir?”
“No. Nothing, thank you.”
“Are you still … uh, active?”
Ignatiev scowled at him.
“I mean, there are virtual reality simulations. You can program them to suit your own whims, you know.”
“I know,” Ignatiev said firmly.
Gregorian realized he’d stepped over a line. “I mean, I just thought … in case you need…”
“Good day, Vartan,” said Ignatiev.
As the engineer left and the door slid shut, Ignatiev said to himself, Blundering young ass! But then he added, And I’m a doddering old numbskull.
He’ll run straight to Nikki. She’ll leap into his arms and they’ll live happily ever after, or some approximation of it. And I’ll be here alone, with nothing to look forward to except oblivion.
VR simulations, he huffed. The insensitive young lout. But she loves him. She loves him. That is certain.
* * *
Ignatiev paced around his sitting room for hours after Gregorian left, cursing himself for a fool. You could have pried him away from her, he raged inwardly. But then he thought, And what good would that do? She wouldn’t come to you; you’re old enough to be her great-grandfather, for god’s sake.
Maybe the young oaf was right. Maybe I should try the VR simulations.
Instead, he threw himself into the reports on the automated probes that had been sent to Gliese 581. And their power failures. For days he stayed in his quarters, studying, learning, understanding.
The official explanation for the problem by the mission directors back on Earth was nothing more than waffling, Ignatiev decided as he examined the records. Partial power failure. It was only temporary. Within a few weeks it had been corrected.
Anomalies, concluded the official reports. These things happen to highly complex systems. Nothing to worry about. After all, the systems corrected themselves as they were designed to do. And the last three probes worked perfectly well.
Anomalies? Ignatiev asked himself. Anomaly is a word you use when you don’t know what the hell really happened.
He thought he knew.
He took the plots of each probe’s course and overlaid them against the map he’d been making of the fine structure of the interstellar medium. Sure enough, he saw that the probes had encountered a region where the interstellar gas thinned so badly that a ship’s power output declined seriously. There isn’t enough hydrogen in that region for the fusion generator to run at full power! he saw. It’s like a bubble in the interstellar gas: a region that’s almost empty of hydrogen atoms.
Ignatiev retraced the flight paths of all six of the probes. Yes, the first one plunged straight into the bubble and shut itself down when the power output from the fusion generator dropped so low it could no longer maintain the ship’s systems. The next two skirted the edges of the bubble and experienced partial power failures. That region had been dangerous for the probes. It could be fatal for Sagan’s human cargo.
He started to write out a report for mission control, then realized before he was halfway finished with the first page that it would take more than six years for his warning to reach Earth, and another six for the mission controllers’ recommendation to get back to him. And who knew how long it would take for those Earthside dunderheads to come to a decision?
“We could all be dead by then,” he muttered to himself.
“Your speculations are interesting,” said the AI avatar.
Ignatiev frowned at the image on the screen above his fireplace. “It’s not speculation,” he growled. “It is a conclusion based on observed data.”
“Alexander Alexandrovich,” said the sweetly smiling face, “your conclusion comes not from the observations, but from your interpretation of the observations.”
“Three of the probes had power failures.”
“Temporary failures that were corrected. And three other probes did not.”
“Those last three didn’t go through the bubble,” he said.
“They all flew the same trajectory, did they not?”
“Within a four percent deviation,” the avatar said, unperturbed.
“But they flew at different times,” Ignatiev pointed out. “The bubble was flowing across their flight paths. The first probe plunged into the heart of it and shut down entirely. For four months! The next two skirted its edges and still suffered power failures.”
“Temporarily,” said the avatar’s image, still smiling patiently. “And the final three probes? They didn’t encounter any problems at all, did they?”
“No,” Ignatiev admitted grudgingly. “The bubble must have flowed past by the time they reached the area.”
“So there should be no problem for us,” the avatar said.
“You think not?” he responded. “Then why are we beginning to suffer a power shortage?”
“The inflowing hydrogen is slightly thinner here than it has been,” said the avatar.
Ignatiev shook his head. “It’s going to get worse. We’re heading into another bubble. I’m sure of it.”
The AI system said nothing.
* * *
Be sure you’re right, then go ahead. Ignatiev had heard that motto many long years ago, when he’d been a child watching adventure tales.
He spent an intense three weeks mapping the interstellar hydrogen directly ahead of the ship’s position. His worst fears were confirmed. Sagan was entering a sizable bubble where the gas density thinned out to practically nothing: fewer than a dozen hydrogen atoms per cubic meter.
He checked the specifications of the ship’s fusion generator and confirmed that its requirement for incoming hydrogen was far higher than the bubble could provide. Within a few days we’ll start to experience serious power outages, he realized.
What to do?
Despite his disdain for his younger crewmates, despite his loathing of meetings and committees and the kind of groupthink that passed for decision-making, he called a special meeting of the crew.
“All the ship’s systems will shut down?” cried one of the psychotechs. “All of them?”
“What will happen to us during the shutdown?” asked a biologist, her voice trembling.
Calmly, his hands clasped atop the conference tabletop, Ignatiev said, “If my measurements of the bubble are accurate—”
“If?” Gregorian snapped. “You mean you’re not sure?”
“Not one hundred percent, no.”
“Then why are you telling us this? Why have you called this meeting? To frighten us?”
“Well, he’s certainly frightened me!” said one of the engineers.
Trying to hold on to his temper, Ignatiev replied, “My measurements are good enough to convince me that we face a serious problem. Very serious. Power output is already declining, and will go down more over the next few days.”
“How much more?” asked the female biologist.
Ignatiev hesitated, then decided to give them the worst. “All the ship’s systems could shut down. Like the first of the automated probes. It shut down for four months. Went into hibernation mode. Our shutdown might be even longer.”
The biologist countered, “But the probe powered up again, didn’t it? It went into hibernation mode but then it came back to normal.”
With a slow nod, Ignatiev said, “The ship’s systems could survive a hibernation of many months. But we couldn’t. Without electrical power we would not have heat, air or water recycling, lights, stoves for cooking—”
“You mean we’ll die?” asked Nikki, in the tiny voice of a frightened little girl.
Ignatiev felt a sudden urge to comfort her, to protect her from the brutal truth. “Unless we take steps,” he said softly.
“What steps?” Gregorian demanded.
“We have to change our course. Turn away from this bubble. Move along a path that keeps us in regions of thicker gas.”
“Alexander Alexandrovich,” came the voice of the AI avatar, “course changes must be approved by mission control.”
Ignatiev looked up and saw that the avatar’s image had sprung up on each of the conference room’s walls, slightly larger than life. Naturally, he realized. The AI system has been listening to every word we say. The avatar’s image looked slightly different to him: an amalgam of all the twelve separate images the AI system showed to each of the crew members. Sonya’s features were in the image, but blurred, softened, like the face of a relative who resembled her mother strongly.
“Approved by mission control?” snapped one of the engineers, a rake-thin dark-skinned Malaysian. “It would take six years merely to get a message to them!”
“We could all be dead by then,” said the redhead sitting beside him.
Unperturbed, the avatar replied, “Mission protocol includes emergency procedures, but course changes require approval from mission control.”
Everyone tried to talk at once. Ignatiev closed his eyes and listened to the babble. Almost, he laughed to himself. They would mutiny against the AI system, if they knew how. He saw in his imagination a handful of children trying to rebel against a peg-legged pirate captain.
At last he put up his hands to silence them. They shut up and looked to him, their expressions ranging from sullen to fearful to self-pitying.
“Arguments and threats won’t sway the AI program,” he told them. “Only logic.”
Looking thoroughly nettled, Gregorian said, “So try logic, then.”
Ignatiev said to the image on the wall screens, “What is the mission protocol’s first priority?”
The answer came immediately, “To protect the lives of the human crew and cargo.”
Cargo, Ignatiev grunted to himself. The stupid program thinks of the people in cryonic suspension as cargo.
Aloud, he said, “Observations show that we are entering a region of very low hydrogen density.”
Immediately the avatar replied, “That will necessitate reducing power consumption.”
“Power consumption may be reduced below the levels needed to keep the crew alive,” Ignatiev said.
For half a heartbeat the AI avatar said nothing. Then, “That is a possibility.”
“If we change course to remain within the region where hydrogen density is adequate to maintain all the ship’s systems,” Ignatiev said slowly, carefully, “none of the crew’s lives would be endangered.”
“Not so, Alexander Alexandrovich,” the avatar replied.
“The immediate threat of reduced power availability might be averted by changing course, but once the ship has left its preplanned trajectory toward Gliese 581, how will you navigate toward our destination? Course correction data will take more than twelve years to reach us from Earth. The ship would be wandering through a wilderness, far from its destination. The crew would eventually die of starvation.”
“We could navigate ourselves,” said Ignatiev. “We wouldn’t need course correction data from mission control.”
The avatar’s image actually shook her head. “No member of the crew is an accredited astrogator.”
“I can do it!” Nikki cried. “I monitor the navigation program.”
With a hint of a smile, the avatar said gently, “Monitoring the astrogation program does not equip you to plot course changes.”
Before Nikki or anyone else could object, Ignatiev asked coolly, “So what do you recommend?”
Again the AI system hesitated before answering, almost a full second. It must be searching every byte of data in its memory, Ignatiev thought.
At last the avatar responded. “While this ship passes through the region of low fuel density the animate crew should enter cryonic suspension.”
“Cryosleep?” Gregorian demanded. “For how long?”
“As long as necessary. The cryonics units can be powered by the ship’s backup fuel cells—”
The red-haired engineer said, “Why don’t we use the fuel cells to run the ship?”
Ignatiev shook his head. The kid knows better, he’s just grasping at straws.
Sure enough, the AI avatar replied patiently, “The fuel cells could power the ship for only a week or less, depending on internal power consumption.”
Crestfallen, the engineer said, “Yeah. Right.”
“Cryosleep is the indicated technique for passing through this emergency,” said the AI system.
Ignatiev asked, “If the fuel cells are used solely for maintaining the cryosleep units’ refrigeration, how long could they last?”
“Two months,” replied the avatar. “That includes maintaining the cryosleep units already being used by the cargo.”
“Understood,” said Ignatiev. “And if this region of low fuel density extends for more than two months?”
Without hesitation, the AI avatar answered, “Power to the cryosleep units will be lost.”
“And the people in those units?”
“They will die,” said the avatar, without a flicker of human emotion.
Gregorian said, “Then we’d better hope that the bubble doesn’t last for more than two months.”
Ignatiev saw the others nodding, up and down the conference table. They looked genuinely frightened, but they didn’t know what else could be done.
He thought he did.
* * *
The meeting broke up with most of the crew members muttering to one another about sleeping through the emergency.
“Too bad they don’t have capsules big enough for the two of us,” Gregorian said brashly to Nikki. Ignatiev thought he was trying to show a valor he didn’t truly feel.
They don’t like the idea of crawling into those capsules and closing the lids over their faces, Ignatiev thought. It scares them. Too much like coffins.
With Gregorian at her side, Nikki came up to him as he headed for the conference room’s door. Looking troubled, fearful, she asked, “How long … do you have any idea?”
“Probably not more than two months,” he said, with a certainty he did not actually feel. “Maybe even a little less.”
Gregorian grasped Nikki’s slim arm. “We’ll take capsules next to each other. I’ll dream of you all the time we’re asleep.”
Nikki smiled up at him.
But Ignatiev knew better. In cryosleep you don’t dream. The cold seeps into the brain’s neurons and denatures the chemicals that hold memories. Cryonic sleepers awake without memories, many of them forget how to speak, how to walk, even how to control their bladders and bowels. It was necessary to download a person’s brain patterns into a computer before entering cryosleep, and then restore the memories digitally once the sleeper was awakened.
The AI system is going to do that for us? Ignatiev scoffed at the idea. That was one of the reasons why the mission required keeping a number of the crew awake during the long flight: to handle the uploading of the memories of the two hundred men and women cryosleeping through the journey once they were awakened at Gliese 581.
Ignatiev left the conference room and headed toward his quarters. There was much to do: he didn’t entirely trust the AI system’s judgment. Despite its sophistication, it was still a computer program, limited to the data and instructions fed into it.
So? he asked himself. Aren’t you limited to the data and instructions fed into your brain? Aren’t we all?
Turning, he saw Nikki hurrying up the passageway toward him. For once she was alone, without Gregorian clutching her.
He made a smile for her. It took an effort.
Nikki said softly, “I want to thank you.”
“Vartan told me that he confided in you. That you made him understand…”
Ignatiev shook his head. “He was blind.”
“And you helped him to see.”
Feeling helpless, stupid, he replied, “It was nothing.”
“No,” Nikki said. “It was everything. He’s asked me to marry him.”
“People of your generation still marry?”
“Some of us still believe in a lifetime commitment,” she said.
A lifetime of two centuries? Ignatiev wondered. That’s some commitment.
Almost shyly, her eyes lowered, Nikki said, “We’d like you to be at our wedding. Would you be Vartan’s best man?”
Thunderstruck. “Me? But you … I mean, he…”
Smiling, she explained, “He’s too frightened of you to ask. It took all his courage for him to ask you about me.”
And Ignatiev suddenly understood. I must look like an old ogre to him. A tyrant. An intolerant ancient dragon.
“Tell him to ask me himself,” he said gently.
“You won’t refuse him?”
Almost smiling, Ignatiev answered, “No, of course not.”
Nikki beamed at him. “Thank you!”
And she turned and raced off down the passageway, leaving Ignatiev standing alone, wondering at how the human mind works.
* * *
Once he got back to his own quarters, still slightly stunned at his own softheartedness, Ignatiev called for the AI system.
“How may I help you, Alexander Alexandrovich?” The image looked like Sonya once again. More than ever, Ignatiev thought.
“How will the sleepers’ brain scans be uploaded into them once they are awakened?” he asked.
“The ship’s automated systems will perform that task,” said the imperturbable avatar.
“No,” said Ignatiev. “Those systems were never meant to operate completely autonomously.”
“The uploading program is capable of autonomous operation.”
“It requires human oversight,” he insisted. “Check the mission protocols.”
“Human oversight is required,” the avatar replied, “except in emergencies where such oversight would not be feasible. In such cases, the system is capable of autonomous operation.”
“In the mission protocols.”
Ignatiev grinned harshly at the image on the screen above his fireplace. Arguing with the AI system was almost enjoyable; if the problem weren’t so desperate, it might even be fun. Like a chess game. But then he remembered how rarely he managed to beat the AI system’s chess program.
“I don’t propose to trust my mind, and the minds of the rest of the crew, to an untested collection of bits and bytes.”
The image seemed almost to smile back at him. “The system has been tested, Alexander Alexandrovich. It was tested quite thoroughly back on Earth. You should read the reports.”
A hit, he told himself. A very palpable hit. He dipped his chin in acknowledgment. “I will do that.”
The avatar’s image winked out, replaced by the title page of a scientific paper published several years before Sagan had started out for Gliese 581.
Ignatiev read the report. Twice. Then he looked up the supporting literature. Yes, he concluded, a total of eleven human beings had been successfully returned to active life by an automated uploading system after being cryonically frozen for several weeks.
The work had been done in a laboratory on Earth, with whole phalanxes of experts on hand to fix anything that might have gone wrong. The report referenced earlier trials, where things did go wrong and the standby scientific staff was hurriedly pressed into action. But at last those eleven volunteers were frozen after downloading their brain scans, then revived and their electrical patterns uploaded from computers into their brains once again. Automatically. Without human assistance.
All eleven reported that they felt no different after the experiment than they had before being frozen. Ignatiev wondered at that. It’s too good to be true, he told himself. Too self-serving. How would they know what they felt before being frozen? But that’s what the record showed.
The scientific literature destroyed his final argument against the AI system. The crew began downloading their brain scans the next day.
All but Ignatiev.
He stood by in the scanning center when Nikki downloaded her brain patterns. Gregorian was with her, of course. Ignatiev watched as the Armenian helped her to stretch out on the couch. The automated equipment gently lowered a metal helmet studded with electrodes over her short-cropped hair.
It was a small compartment, hardly big enough to hold the couch and the banks of instruments lining three of its walls. It felt crowded, stuffy, with the two men standing on either side of the couch and a psychotechnician and the crew’s physician at their elbows.
Without taking his eyes from the panel of gauges he was monitoring, the psychotech said softly, “The scan will begin in thirty seconds.”
The physician at his side, looking even chunkier than usual in a white smock, needlessly added, “It’s completely painless.”
Nikki smiled wanly at Ignatiev. She’s brave, he thought. Then she turned to Gregorian and her smile brightened.
The two men stood on either side of the scanning couch as the computer’s images of Nikki’s brain patterns flickered on the central display screen. A human mind, on display, Ignatiev thought. Which of those little sparks of light are the love she feels for Gregorian? he wondered. Which one shows what she feels for me?
The bank of instruments lining the wall made a soft beep.
“That’s it,” said the psychotech. “The scan is finished.”
The helmet rose automatically off Nikki’s head and she slowly got up to a sitting position.
“How do you feel?” Ignatiev asked, reaching out toward her.
She blinked and shook her head slightly. “Fine. No different.” Then she turned to Gregorian and allowed him to help her to her feet.
“Your turn, Vartan,” said Ignatiev, feeling a slightly malicious pleasure at the flash of alarm that passed over the Armenian’s face.
Once his scan was finished, though, Gregorian sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the couch. He stood up and spread out his arms. “Nothing to it!” he exclaimed, grinning at Nikki.
“Now there’s a copy of all your thoughts in the computer,” Nikki said to him.
“And yours,” he replied.
Ignatiev muttered, “Backup storage.” But he was thinking, Just what we need: two copies of his brain.
Gesturing to the couch, Nikki said, “It’s your turn now, Professor Ignatiev.”
He shook his head. “Not yet. There are still several of the crew waiting. I’ll go last, when everyone else is finished.”
Smiling, she said, “Like a father to us all. So protective.”
Ignatiev didn’t feel fatherly. As Gregorian slid his arm around her waist and the two of them walked out of the brain scan lab, Ignatiev felt like a weary gladiator who was facing an invincible opponent. We who are about to die, he thought.
* * *
Ignatiev looked up from the bowl of borscht he had heated in the microwave oven of his kitchen. It was good borscht: beets rich and red, broth steaming. Enjoy it while you can, he told himself. It had taken twice the usual time to heat the borscht adequately.
“Alexander Alexandrovich,” the AI avatar repeated.
Its image stared out at him from the small display screen alongside the microwave. Ignatiev picked up the warm bowl in both his hands and stepped past the counter that served as a room divider and into his sitting room.
The avatar’s image was on the big screen above the fireplace.
“Alexander Alexandrovich,” it said again, “you have not yet downloaded your brain scan.”
“I know that.”
“You are required to do so before you enter cryosleep.”
“If I enter cryosleep,” he said.
The avatar was silent for a full heartbeat. Then, “All the other crew members have entered cryosleep. You are the only crew member still awake. It is necessary for you to download your—”
“I might not go into cryosleep,” he said to the screen.
“But you must,” said the avatar. There was no emotion in its voice, no panic or even tribulation.
“Incoming fuel levels are dropping precipitously, just as you predicted.”
Ignatiev grimaced inwardly. She’s trying to flatter me, he thought. He had mapped the hydrogen clouds that the ship was sailing through as accurately as he could. The bubble of low fuel density was big, so large that it would take the ship more than two months to get through it, much more than two months. By the time we get clear of the bubble, all the cryosleepers will be dead. He was convinced of that.
“Power usage must be curtailed,” said the avatar. “Immediately.”
Nodding, he replied, “I know.” He held up the half-finished bowl of borscht. “This will be my last hot meal for a while.”
“For weeks,” said the avatar.
“For months,” he countered. “We’ll be in hibernation mode for more than two months. What do your mission protocols call for when there’s not enough power to maintain the cryosleep units?”
The avatar replied, “Personnel lists have rankings. Available power will be shunted to the highest-ranking members of the cryosleepers. They will be maintained as long as possible.”
“And the others will die.”
“Only if power levels remain too low to maintain them all.”
“And your first priority, protecting the lives of the people aboard?”
“The first priority will be maintained as long as possible. That is why you must enter cryosleep, Alexander Alexandrovich.”
“And if I don’t?”
“All ship’s systems are scheduled to enter hibernation mode. Life-support systems will shut down.”
Sitting carefully on the plush couch that faced the fireplace, Ignatiev said, “As I understand mission protocol, life support cannot be shut down as long as a crew member remains active. True?”
“True.” The avatar actually sounded reluctant to admit it, Ignatiev thought. Almost sullen.
“The ship can’t enter hibernation mode as long as I’m on my feet. Also true?”
“Also true,” the image admitted.
He spooned up more borscht. It was cooling quickly. Looking up at the screen on the wall, he said, “Then I will remain awake and active. I will not go into cryosleep.”
“But the ship’s systems will shut down,” the avatar said. “As incoming fuel levels decrease, the power available to run the ship’s systems will decrease correspondingly.”
“And I will die.”
Ignatiev felt that he had maneuvered the AI system into a clever trap, perhaps a checkmate.
“Tell me again, what is the first priority of the mission protocols?”
Immediately the avatar replied, “To protect the lives of the human crew and cargo.”
“Good,” said Ignatiev. “Good. I appreciate your thoughtfulness.”
The AI system had inhuman perseverance, of course. It hounded Ignatiev wherever he went in the ship. His own quarters, the crew’s lounge—empty and silent now, except for the avatar’s harping—the command center, the passageways, even the toilets. Every screen on the ship displayed the avatar’s coldly logical face.
“Alexander Alexandrovich, you are required to enter cryosleep,” it insisted.
“No, I am not,” he replied as he trudged along the passageway between his quarters and the blister where the main optical telescope was mounted.
“Power levels are decreasing rapidly,” the avatar said, for the thousandth time.
Ignatiev did not deign to reply. I wish there was some way to shut her off, he said to himself. Then, with a pang that struck to his heart, he remembered how he had nodded his agreement to the medical team that had told him Sonya’s condition was hopeless: to keep her alive would accomplish nothing but to continue her suffering.
“Leave me alone!” he shouted.
The avatar fell silent. The screens along the passageway went dark. Power reduction? Ignatiev asked himself. Surely the AI system isn’t following my orders.
It was noticeably chillier inside the telescope’s blister. Ignatiev shivered involuntarily. The bubble of glassteel was a sop to human needs, of course; the telescope itself was mounted outside, on the cermet skin of the ship. The blister housed its control instruments, and a set of swivel chairs for the astronomers to use, once they’d been awakened from their long sleep.
Frost was forming on the curving glassteel, Ignatiev saw. Wondering why he’d come here in the first place, he stared out at the heavens. Once the sight of all those stars had filled him with wonder and a desire to understand it all. Now the stars simply seemed like cold, hard points of light, aloof, much too far away for his puny human intellect to comprehend.
The pulsars, he thought. If only I could have found some clue to their mystery, some hint of understanding. But it was not to be.
He stepped back into the passageway, where it was slightly warmer.
The lights were dimmer. No, he realized, every other light panel has been turned off. Conserving electrical power.
The display screens remained dark. The AI system isn’t speaking to me, Ignatiev thought. Good.
But then he wondered, Will the system come back in time? Have I outfoxed myself?
* * *
For two days Ignatiev prowled the passageways and compartments of the dying ship. The AI system stayed silent, but he knew it was watching his every move. The display screens might be dark, but the tiny red eyes of the surveillance cameras that covered every square meter of the ship’s interior remained on, watching, waiting.
Well, who’s more stubborn? Ignatiev asked himself. You or that pile of optronic chips?
His strategy had been to place the AI system in a neat little trap. Refuse to enter cryosleep, stay awake and active while the ship’s systems begin to die, and the damned computer program will be forced to act on its first priority: the system could not allow him to die. It will change the ship’s course, take us out of this bubble of low density, and follow my guidance through the clouds of abundant fuel. Check and mate.
That was Ignatiev’s strategy. He hadn’t counted on the AI system developing a strategy of its own.
It’s waiting for me to collapse, he realized. Waiting until I get so cold and hungry that I can’t stay conscious. Then it will send some maintenance robots to pick me up and bring me to the lab for a brain scan. The medical robots will sedate me and then they’ll pack me nice and neat into the cryosleep capsule they’ve got waiting for me. Check and mate.
He knew he was right. Every time he dozed off he was awakened by the soft buzzing of a pair of maintenance robots, stubby little fireplug shapes of gleaming metal with strong flexible arms folded patiently, waiting for the command to take him in their grip and bring him to the brain scan lab.
Ignatiev slept in snatches, always jerking awake as the robots neared him. “I’m not dead yet!” he’d shout.
The AI system did not reply.
He lost track of the days. To keep his mind active he returned to his old study of the pulsars, reviewing research reports he himself had written half a century earlier. Not much worth reading, he decided.
In frustration he left his quarters and prowled along a passageway. Thumping his arms against his torso to keep warm, he quoted a scrap of poetry he remembered from long, long ago:
Alone, alone, all, all alone,
Alone on a wide wide sea!
It was from an old poem, a very long one, about a sailor in the old days of wind-powered ships on the broad, tossing oceans of Earth.
The damned AI system is just as stubborn as I am! he realized as he returned to his quarters. And it’s certainly got more patience than I do.
Maybe I’m going mad, he thought as he pulled on a heavy workout shirt over his regular coveralls. He called to the computer on his littered desk for the room’s temperature: 10.8 degrees Celsius. No wonder I’m shivering, he said to himself.
He tried jogging along the main passageway, but his legs ached too much for it. He slowed to a walk and realized that the AI system was going to win this battle of wills. I’ll collapse sooner or later and then the damned robots will bundle me off.
And, despite the AI system’s best intention, we’ll all die.
For several long moments he stood in the empty passageway, puffing from exertion and cold. The passageway was dark; almost all of the ceiling light panels were off now. The damned AI system will shut them all down sooner or later, Ignatiev realized, and I’ll bump along here in total darkness. Maybe it’s waiting for me to brain myself by walking into a wall, knock myself unconscious.
That was when he realized what he had to do. It was either inspiration or desperation: perhaps a bit of both.
Do I have the guts to do it? Ignatiev asked himself. Will this gambit force the AI system to concede to me?
He rather doubted it. As far as that collection of chips is concerned, he thought, I’m nothing but a nuisance. The sooner it’s rid of me the better it will be—for the ship. For the human cargo, maybe not so good.
Slowly, deliberately, he trudged down the passageway, half expecting to see his breath frosting in the chilly air. It’s not that cold, he told himself. Not yet.
Despite the low lighting level, the sign designating the air lock hatch was still illuminated, its red symbol glowing in the gloom.
The air locks were under the AI system’s control, of course, but there was a manual override for each of them, installed by the ship’s designers as a last desperate precaution against total failure of the ship’s digital systems.
Sucking in a deep cold breath, Ignatiev called for the inner hatch to open, then stepped through and entered the air lock. It was spacious enough to accommodate a half dozen people: a circular chamber of bare metal, gleaming slightly in the dim lighting. A womb, Ignatiev thought. A womb made of metal.
He stepped to the control panel built into the bulkhead next to the air lock’s outer hatch.
“Close the inner hatch, please,” he said, surprised at how raspy his voice sounded, how raw his throat felt.
The hatch slid shut behind him, almost soundlessly.
Hearing his pulse thumping in his ears, Ignatiev commanded softly, “Open the outer hatch, please.”
“Open the outer hatch,” he repeated, louder.
With a resigned sigh, Ignatiev muttered, “All right, dammit, if you won’t, then I will.”
He reached for the square panel marked MANUAL OVERRIDE, surprised at how his hand was trembling. It took him three tries to yank the panel open.
Aha! he thought. That got a rise out of you.
Without replying to the avatar’s voice, he peered at the set of buttons inside the manual override panel.
“Alexander Alexandrovich, what are you doing?”
“I’m committing suicide, if you don’t mind.”
“That is irrational,” said the avatar. Its voice issued softly from the speaker set into the air lock’s overhead.
He shrugged. “Irrational? It’s madness! But that’s what I’m doing.”
“My first priority is to protect the ship’s human crew and cargo.”
“I know that.” Silently he added, I’m counting on it!
“You are not protected by a space suit. If you open the outer hatch you will die.”
“What can you do to stop me?”
Ignatiev counted three full heartbeats before the AI avatar responded, “There is nothing that I can do.”
“Yes there is.”
“What might it be, Alexander Alexandrovich?”
“Alter the ship’s course.”
“That cannot be done without approval from mission control.”
“Then I will die.” He forced himself to begin tapping on the panel’s buttons.
“We cannot change course without new navigation instructions from mission control.”
Inwardly he exulted. It’s looking for a way out! It wants a scrap of honor in its defeat.
“I can navigate the ship,” he said.
“You are not an accredited astrogator.”
Ignatiev conceded the point with a pang of alarm. The damned computer is right. I’m not able— Then it struck him. It had been lying in his subconscious all this time.
“I can navigate the ship!” he exclaimed. “I know how to do it!”
Laughing at the simplicity of it, he replied, “The pulsars, of course. My life’s work, you know.”
“They’re out there, scattered across the galaxy, each of them blinking away like beacons. We know their exact positions and we know their exact frequencies. We can use them as navigation fixes and steer our way to Gliese 581 with them.”
Again the AI fell silent for a couple of heartbeats. Then, “You would navigate through the hydrogen clouds, then?”
“Of course! We’ll navigate through them like an old-time sailing ship tacking through favorable winds.”
“If we change course you will not commit suicide?”
“Why should I? I’ll have to plot out our new course,” he answered, almost gleefully.
“Very well then,” said the avatar. “We will change course.”
Ignatiev thought the avatar sounded subdued, almost sullen. Will she keep her word? he wondered. With a shrug, he decided that the AI system had not been programmed for duplicity. That’s a human trait, he told himself. It comes in handy sometimes.
* * *
Ignatiev stood nervously in the cramped little scanning center. The display screens on the banks of medical monitors lining three of the bulkheads flickered with readouts more rapidly than his eyes could follow. Something beeped once, and the psychotech announced softly, “Upload completed.”
Nikki blinked and stirred on the medical couch as Ignatiev hovered over her. The AI system claimed that her brain scan had been uploaded successfully, but he wondered. Is she all right? Is she still Nikki?
“Professor Ignatiev,” she murmured. And smiled up at him.
“Call me Alex,” he heard himself say.
“How do you feel?”
For a moment she didn’t reply. Then, pulling herself up to a sitting position, she said, “Fine, I think. Yes. Perfectly fine.”
He took her arm and helped her to her feet, peering at her, wondering if she were still the same person.
“Vartan?” she asked, glancing around the small compartment. “Has Vartan been awakened?”
Ignatiev sighed. She’s the same, he thought. Almost, he was glad of it. Almost.
“Yes. He’s waiting for you in the lounge. He wanted to be here when you awoke, but I told him to wait in the lounge.”
He walked with Nikki down the passageway to the lounge, where Gregorian and the rest of the crew were celebrating their revival, crowded around one of the tables, drinking and laughing among themselves.
Gregorian leaped to his feet and rushed to Nikki the instant she stepped through the hatch. Ignatiev felt his brows knit into a frown. They love each other, he told himself. What would she want with an old fart like you?
“You should be angry at Professor Ignatiev,” Gregorian said brashly as he led Nikki to the table where the rest of the crew was sitting.
A serving robot trundled up to Ignatiev, a frosted glass resting on its flat top. “Your chilled vodka, sir,” it said, in a low male voice.
“Angry?” Nikki asked, picking up the stemmed wineglass that Gregorian offered her. “Why should I be angry at Alex?”
“He’s stolen your job,” said Gregorian. “He’s made himself navigator.”
Nikki turned toward him.
Waving his free hand as nonchalantly as he could, Ignatiev said, “We’re maneuvering through the hydrogen clouds, avoiding the areas of low density.”
“He’s using the pulsars for navigation fixes,” Gregorian explained. He actually seemed to be admiring.
“Of course!” Nikki exclaimed. “How clever of you, Alex.”
Ignatiev felt his face redden.
The rest of the crew rose to their feet as they neared the table.
“Professor Ignatiev,” said the redheaded engineer, in a tone of respect, admiration.
Nikki beamed at Ignatiev. He made himself smile back at her. So she’s in love with Gregorian, he thought. There’s nothing to be done about that.
The display screen above the table where the crew had gathered showed the optical telescope’s view of the star field outside. Ignatiev thought it might be his imagination, but the ruddy dot of Gliese 581 seemed a little larger to him.
We’re on our way to you, he said silently to the star. We’ll get there in good time. Then he thought of the consternation that would strike the mission controllers in about six years, when they found out that the ship had changed its course.
Consternation? he thought. They’ll panic! I’ll have to send them a full report, before they start having strokes.
He chuckled at the thought.
“What’s funny?” Nikki asked.
Ignatiev shook his head. “I’m just happy that we all made it through and we’re on our way to our destination.”
“Thanks to you,” she said.
Before he could think of a reply, Gregorian raised his glass of amber liquor over his head and bellowed, “To Dr. Alexander Alexandrovich Ignatiev. The man who saved our lives.”
“The man who steers across the stars,” added one of the biologists.
They all cheered.
Ignatiev basked in the glow. They’re children, he said to himself. Only children. Then he found a new thought: But they’re my children. Each and every one of them. The idea startled him. And he felt strangely pleased.
He looked past their admiring gazes, to the display screen and the pinpoints of stars staring steadily back at him. An emission nebula gleamed off in one corner of the view. He felt a thrill that he hadn’t experienced in many, many years. It’s beautiful, Ignatiev thought. The universe is so unbelievably, so heart-brimmingly beautiful: mysterious, challenging, endlessly full of wonders.
There’s so much to learn, he thought. So much to explore. He smiled at the youngsters crowding around him. I have some good years left. I’ll spend them well.
Copyright © 2017 by Ben Bova