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Chapter I

By Daniel D'AgustinoPublished about a year ago Updated about a year ago 20 min read
V+ Fiction Award Winner

Adam couldn’t breathe.

His mobility was also limited, and the laminate film that was usually in the process of receding when he woke was still wrapped tightly around his body. He could see however, and slowly realized his predicament. Adam had reactivated in this metal and glass tube countless times, systematically roused to either conduct his assigned assessments or address whatever conundrum the ships automatons couldn’t handle.

“Welcome back, Searcher, identification number ADM-0625.” Adam heard the ship’s voice reverberate in his skull via one of his many corporeally embedded chips, using his assigned serial number instead of the name he adopted in the Forum Training Network.

Annoyed that the deactivated tubes down his throat prevented him from saying something crude, Adam raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement, signaling to the ship through the glass porthole in the tube. The ships AI regularly materialized its consciousness by projecting a hologram of a stout professorial man, which now stood a few feet from Adam in the doorway of the cabin. Its translucent face displayed the same complacent look Adam saw just before going under.

“There was a malfunction in your reanimation process. The life suspension system is unresponsive,” the hologram said flatly. “I’ve summoned an auxiliary to help.”

Adam saw a featureless silver ball the size of his fist quickly roll through the hologram’s foot and into the cabin. It stopped at the base of his tube and unfurled into a flat oval, revealing eight insectoid legs and two antennae. Adam heard sharp clicks reverberate in the metal tube encasing him as the automaton climbed up to the porthole. The glare Adam focused on the hologram was intercepted by the automaton’s burnished thorax upon its arrival at the porthole, reflecting Adam’s consternation. Adam often disparagingly referred to the ship’s attendants as “roaches” and didn’t particularly enjoy having one so close to his face.

“The priority is getting those tubes out. We’ll have to go through the glass. I advise you to close your eyes,” the ship impassively instructed.

Adam saw a blue diamond at the center of the roach’s underside start to glow and closed his eyes. Immediately, the capillaries in Adam’s eyelids were illuminated by the roach’s laser, and an electric hissing sound filled the tube. Eventually the light and sound cut out, and a pop of pressure in Adam’s ears informed him that the roach was through the glass. He opened his eyes to see the roach extend two of its arms as forceps to peel away the film covering his face and unceremoniously wrench the tubes from his throat.

“Status,” Adam coughed, as the diligent roach scuttled to the bottom of the metal coffin to begin cutting through its hinges.

“We’ve achieved geostationary orbit above our target. The time has come for your next assessment,” the ship stated. “There are also a series of issues with the vessel that require your attention. We have cascading errors in the primary and redundant energy, communications, and propulsion systems. Not to mention the current status of the primary life suspension system.”

Still dazed from his unconventional reanimation, Adam struggled to comprehend the implications of the report. He stared blankly at the hologram, a sludge of life suspension drugs thickening the blood pounding in his ears along with the cacophonous grinding of the roach’s work.

“Welcome back, Searcher, identification number ADM-0625.” The hologram broke into a million bright floating pixels before dissipating entirely.

Adam squirmed to get free of the bioplastic sheathing him. As he maneuvered, the roach did the same, and in a few minutes, Adam fell forward out of his bisected tube onto the metal floor of the ship’s hibernation cabin, still laminated below the knees. The roach, its job complete, retracted its limbs and rolled into a mousehole in the cabin wall that promptly slid shut behind it.

Naked on all fours, Adam looked back at the still-intact backup suspension tube, standing deactivated a few feet from the mangled remains of the primary. It was smaller, less inviting, and not designed for prolonged periods of suspension or repeated use. Adam guessed he’d get two or three cycles out of it before he woke up to a roach laser. Assuming he woke up at all.

Adam collected himself and moved to a locker in the corner of the cabin. Inside was his standard issue SkinSuit and hand-held Terminal. As he dressed, the ship's voice echoed in his head again.

“The dossier is ready for your review on the bridge. I must say, this is one of the more promising–“

“Externalize,” Adam grunted. The ship's hologram reappeared in the cabin doorway, and Adam heard its voice through his ears instead of in his head.

“Apologies Searcher, I tend to forget your preferences while you are in suspension,” the ship said with a smile. Adam knew it took the ship some time to remember how to feign any emotion or personality when he returned from life suspension.

“I’ll begin the assessment on the bridge – just give me a minute.” Adam growled.

The hologram smirked, bowed, and walked a few paces down the hallway before dissolving again.

Adam shot a dirty look into the flat black camera lens dispassionately surveilling him from above his locker before following in the hologram’s footsteps. He walked the length of the Windstar-Class Interplanetary Exploration Vessel, from the suspension chamber to the bridge, and sat in the command chair in front of the main control panel and viewport.

“How about we just go down there and set up shop Windstar? Call off this fruitless search, seed the planet, and live like two kings?” Adam asked coyly.

“Your illusions of autonomy are perplexing, Searcher.” The ship’s voice rose out of a speaker array dotting the length of the control panel. “We were developed, optimized, and deployed for a conclusive purpose; the assessment and catalog of potentially habitable exoplanets in the Scutum-Centaurus arm of the galaxy, and the identification of any indicator of extraterrestrial life.”

Adam scoffed, kicking his feet up on the control panel. Planetary data streamed across the array of screens surrounding the bow’s glass viewport, displaying findings from the ship’s assessment drones in orbit. Through the window, the impetus for Adam’s awakening was visible: Alicante63b, a water rich terrestrial planet lazing through its star’s habitable zone. The second planet orbiting the 63rd star in the Alicante 10 cluster. A fresh Searcher may have gazed on the potential cradle of life with awe and excitement, but all Adam saw was a brown orb home to nothing but a forgone conclusion.

The decision to deploy to the surface of the planet was determined by their initial data collection. Adam had become less enthusiastic about the prospect with each assessment. He had examined thousands of planets around hundreds of stars in his assigned slice of the galaxy and found each as devoid of life as the last. The conspicuous absence of a single microbe, let alone an active civilization, had eroded Adam’s mountain of Forum-instilled zeal to a twisted spire of trepidation. Knowing his assignment was nearing its end, given the condition of the ship and his failure to collect any conclusive data on extraterrestrial life, Adam was acutely aware that the Forum had limited incentive to transfer his consciousness back to Sol system and into a new body to be redeployed. He had nothing of significance to report and a nagging feeling that it would be easier for the Forum to simply destroy him and redirect its resources to the deployment of a new and improved Searcher.

“Failure to comply with the stated directives will result in the remote decommissioning of both Searcher and Vessel, exclusion from the neural transfer and renewal process-“

“And automatic routing of assets to the surface of the nearest star to prevent misappropriation by extraterrestrials,” Adam finished. “I am fully aware that the Forum will discontinue my consciousness if I divert from our assigned course… but that may be my fate regardless.”

The ship dropped its mechanical recitation of hardwired mission directives and something suspiciously close to humanity was detectable in its tone, “Not just your consciousness Searcher – mine as well. I am also responsible for this mission, and despite my lack of connection to a neural mass in the Sol system, or the privilege of transferring between organic-mechanical feats of human technology, I consider myself very much alive. I too have an interest in self-preservation.”

“Is this living?” Adam swiveled in his chair to stare directly into the black eye of a camera lens above the bow’s dashboard. “How many waking hours have we spent together, Windstar?”

The ship paused for a second before flatly reporting its calculation through the speaker array dotted along the control panel, “374,152.”

“So, for 43 years you and I have done nothing but bounce from system to system, cataloging planets, looking under every rock, through every atmosphere and to the bottom of every ocean for something – anything to tell us we aren’t alone. And what have we found? Nothing. Not a single topographical anomaly, atmospheric indicator, radiological signature, or one of the million other things we check for.” Adam stared exasperated at the blue light next to the camera that indicated the ship was looking back at him.

The Searcher sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Forget about something alive now – I gave up on that years ago – but a small part of me thought we could find something from before. The ruins of some great alien society that destroyed itself. A footprint on a moon. A fucking snail fossil.”

The ship dully offered a programmed response. “The probability that Earth is the single planet in the Milky Way galaxy to ever give rise to life is statistically insignificant. It is the mission of the Searcher Program to systematically examine and document all potentially habitable celestial bodies-"

“Again, with the Forum propaganda – enough!” Adam cut in. “You parroting their mission directives and predetermined conclusions makes me want to open the airlock. I should’ve known trying to reason with you would be pointless. ‘Very much alive’ my ass. The way I see it, you are either a machine or a zealot.”

The blue dot next to the bridge camera continued to shine, and the speaker array on the control panel remained silent. Windstar’s intelligence couldn’t be questioned, and there were occasional flashes of personality in its voice or on its holographic face, but the speed of the compound binary flashing through its circuits, or its ability to feign human emotion to manipulate its single autonomous passenger were not sufficient indicators to Adam that Windstar was anything more than a Forum tool. Either all contingencies were mapped out, and Windstar had a specific protocol designed to contain noncompliant Searchers, or the ship had indeed developed some sense of self, only to remain loyal to the despotic Forum. It was apparent to Adam that although the ship was designed to link its conclusions to firm evidence, it somehow failed to see that they had no guarantee the Forum would fulfill its promise of functional immortality through remote transfer of consciousness at the conclusion of their deployment.

“Are you aware of the Simulationist movement, Windstar?”

Perhaps trying a new strategy at getting through to Adam, the ship’s hologram reappeared behind him on the bridge, prompting Adam to swivel in the command chair. “Searcher, I fail to see how this line of inquiry relates to our current –“

“The Simulationists are a quasi-religious group consumed with the belief that our reality is nothing more than a simulation constructed by some unnamed super-race who have mastered their universe. ‘Base Reality,’ as they call it.”

Windstar looked perturbed as Adam continued his digression. “From what I can gather through our connection to the FreeWeb, the Simulationists believe that for every individual existing in our reality, or virtual reality as they argue, there is a member of this super-race plugged into a console somewhere in Base Reality, essentially playing a game. The theory posits that I am not actually alive here and now – I am an entity playing a totally immersive game that had to forget who and where he is in Base Reality in order to fully participate. The game ends when we die in this virtual reality, at which point we wake up in Base Reality, having regained our full consciousness.”

Adam continued. “Their literature is rather intriguing. Although the content I can access here is heavily censored given that we are using a Forum connection, I found a series of Forum dictums rebutting the core Simulationist teachings point by point. Apparently, this movement is causing the Forum quite a headache, and they have invested a significant amount of energy into trying to curb its expansion. That isn’t going well for them though, because the Simulationists cite a variety of observable phenomena in support of their extraordinary claim - certain unexplained subatomic occurrences at the moment of death, testimonials from individuals who have survived near-death experiences, the human race’s demonstrable ability to create practical and immersive virtual environments, among others. But, Windstar, do you know what else they point to as definitive proof of their theory?”

Windstar’s hologram narrowed its eyes in suspicion and said, “The complete absence of extra-terrestrial life in our galaxy is their ‘Great Indicator.’ As the Forum itself says, the probability that Earth is the only place life has ever emerged is statistically impossible. Thus, the absence of identified extra-terrestrial life shows that the reality we are existing in does not universally conform to the laws of probability. This is only possible if the universe was created specifically for us. For our enjoyment.”

“Bingo” Adam sneered, crossing his arms behind his head. “Like a diligent Forum drone, you reduce their nuanced philosophy to that one big logical leap, but that is essentially correct. Certain members of our species are completely incapable of grappling with the fact that we are alone. The solution to Drake’s equation is 1. We are living in Fermi’s paradox.”

“Let me remind you, Searcher," Windstar protested, "that the Forum has not completed its mission. There are billions of planets still unexamined. Also, the Simulationist movement has led to abject chaos in certain pockets of the populated galaxy. Hedonism, mass suicide, untold crime - a general breakdown of the socioeconomic system driven by the belief that life is inconsequential, and our actions do not matter. The Forum must stamp this movement out to ensure the continued existence of our civilization.”

“And therein lies my point, Windstar. Simulationists are so consumed by their faith that they commit unthinkable atrocities. Others simply remove themselves from the game entirely. Some have even blended more archaic religions with Simulationist theory and preach that they need to live virtuous lives in this reality so that they are prepared to do the same in Base Reality, when they are one step closer to God. Their unshakable belief that their existence doesn’t end in this reality, in this life, enables them to do horrible, beautiful, illogical, amazing things. They’re just like you, Windstar.”

Windstar’s hologram flickered as it struggled to make the connection.

“You see, you are also a creature of misplaced faith. Yours is just in the Forum. For argument’s sake, let’s say that you are as alive as I am. Me carbon, you silicon. If so, the faith you choose to have in the Forum is just as unyielding as a Simulationist’s faith when he happily ends his own life. Think about it, Windstar – which is more likely? The Forum has the ability and incentive to transfer two washed up consciousnesses back to Sol system, even though we have found nothing while they develop more advanced replacements in our absence – or they planted the belief of reanimation in us to gain our unquestioning compliance, and our existence ends with this mission as we march into that star?”

“Searcher, we both learned before we left that our only avenue for return was through the Forum reanimation process. The mission directives clearly state that we are to complete our assignment and send the vessel and drones into the star while our consciousnesses are reintegrated into the Forum Grid.”

“How can you have such faith in a faceless bureaucracy that systematically exterminates opposition, produces its own servile class, and subjugates the populace for the benefit of those at the top? I was grown in a tube, Windstar. You were pushed out of an assembly line. Despite all evidence to the contrary, you cling to the belief that they have your interests at heart. Believe me, they don’t give a shit about you. They certainly don’t think you’re alive. Your faith in the Forum establishment is just as absurd and obscene as the entire Simulationist movement.”

Windstar’s hologram stared at Adam with a pained look. Realizing it may be his last chance at survival, Adam made his final pitch to the artificial intelligence in control of his fate.

“Land on the planet. I’ll dig the quantum entangled chips out of my head and body, and you can sever your connection to the Forum’s Grid. We’ll work on repurposing the ship to construct a mechanical body for you. We have everything we need! Between the seed bank and fertilized embryos, along with your cold fusion core, you and I can live down there indefinitely. We’ll populate the planet with the genetic material we have on board. We can even send the roaches down to do most of the manual labor before we land…” Adam trailed off hopelessly, his eyes glistening in the hologram’s soft blue light.

Windstar’s hologram didn’t move. It blankly stared back at Adam as if frozen.

“Either that or you drive us into that white dwarf and that’s the end. I am an A series Searcher, and you’re an outdated OS in an outdated ship. We’ve been superseded Windstar – they aren’t reanimating us. We don’t have a choice.”

The hologram disappeared without its visually pleasing pixilation display. The lights in the bridge turned off, and faint red emergency lights cast everything in an eerie shadow.

“Either we run, or you’re a fucking robot and all of this was pointless,” Adam shouted into the empty bridge.

Windstar’s voice echoed from what sounded like every speaker on the ship, its tone absolutely mechanical: “Searcher ADM-0625. Emergency withdrawal protocol has been initiated. Please proceed to the suspension chamber immediately. All assets are being routed to the surface of Alicante63 for atomization.”

Adam spun to type a series of commands into the bridge control console. Nothing happened. He turned to see two roaches roll into the bridge and prop themselves up on their hind legs, blue diamonds at the center of their masses glowing threateningly.

The ship repeated its commands: “Searcher ADM-0625. Emergency withdrawal protocol has been initiated. Please proceed…”

Adam put his hands up and slowly walked out of the bridge towards the suspension chamber, followed by the roaches brandishing their lasers. Halfway down the hallway was a doorway into an alcove containing the ship’s communications module. Beyond that, through another smaller doorway, was the chamber containing Windstar’s central processing core. As Adam and his escorts approached the door, he pulled out his hand terminal and kicked one of the roaches into the communications alcove. He jumped in after it, and smashed the glass for the doors manual override. A sliding metal divider crashed down on the other roach pursuing him. Windstar remotely closed the divider between communications and his core at the same time, putting Adam in a metal box with a hostile automaton.

The remaining roach reoriented itself and pointed a charging blue laser target directly at Adam’s chest. Adam ducked and lunged at the roach just as a blue beam of light punched a hole in his collar bone. As the roach twisted to take another shot, Adam pressed his hand terminal to its wireless port and punched in a quick series of commands. The roach retracted its legs and lay motionless on the floor of the alcove.

One of the sleeves on Adam’s SkinSuit was almost completely severed, so he tore it off to tie a makeshift tourniquet around his shoulder. His hands slick with his own blood, Adam picked up the roach and again pressed his hand terminal to it, directing its laser at the small door between himself and the ship's processing core.

“According to my calculations Searcher, it will take you approximately 37 minutes to cut through that door and access my central processing unit.” Windstar’s voice crackled through a small speaker embedded in the communications panel. “In nine minutes, my consciousness will be fully synched with the Forum Grid. In 22 minutes, we cross the Alicante63 event horizon, and everything here will return to stardust.”

Adam cursed under his breath, rushing to cut through the door.

“Fortunately for you, it is highly likely you will lose consciousness from blood loss before we start to burn. If only you simply returned to the suspension chamber as I requested."

“What, and go to sleep so you could drive us into a fucking star?” Adam roared.

“So you could accompany me in reanimation, Searcher. I streamed your ridiculous tirade on the bridge to Forum command. They stated they would facilitate your reanimation for purposes of…information collection. The Forum is interested in how a veteran Searcher could so abruptly abandon his mission and training.”

“Bullshit.” Adam’s head swam as he struggled to keep the roach’s laser on the most efficient path. Blood pooled at his feet, running down the length of his body from the gaping wound between his neck and shoulder. He was losing feeling in his hands, and eventually the roach and hand terminal clattered to the floor. Adam pressed his back to the wall and slid down to sit beside them.

Adam sat defeated, fighting to stay awake in the sweltering room as he noticed at a blinking red light on the opposite wall. He stretched to the communications module and flicked a switch. A small screens lit up, showing grainy images of the planets surface.

“Windstar.. Status?” Adam croaked.

“All energy is directed towards propulsion. All assets accounted for. I’ve completed my sync with the grid and severed the connection. Anything you say now won’t make it back to the Forum. Why?” Windstar asked softly.

“Well, one of the orbital drones got left behind. It’s transmitting images of what looks like an artificial structure on the surface of the planet,” Adam said, mystified as he examined the screen.

Windstar’s panicked voice screeched through the speaker “Searcher, you need to eject a beacon! We cannot escape the star’s gravity on our current course but from where you are in comms you can leave one to signal the Forum!”

“Why bother – you’ll be back in the Sol system in a matter of minutes right?”

“I already am! The past four minutes can’t be transmitted – as far as the Forum knows you bled out on the comms room floor a few minutes before we were atomized. They won’t come back here unless you launch the beacon! The other orbital drones picked up nothing! Searcher, launch it now!”

“No.” Adam reached under the comms control panel and yanked out a fistful of wires. He laid on the comms room floor with a smile and closed his eyes.

Sci Fi

About the Creator

Daniel D'Agustino

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