A trillion and one years after the big bang, a son and his father were sitting in front of a small grave. It was night, and the only light that fell upon them was from the single low light lantern they carried with them.
“Why did my mother have to die?” the boy asked his father, staring up at the blackness of the sky.
The father paused for a moment as he mimicked his son’s gaze, then cleared his throat to speak as he snuffed out the light. “Son, do you know why the night never changes?”
The young son, bewildered by his father’s reply, admitted; “No.”
“So much time has passed since the big bang that all the stars you might’ve been able to see at night, all the ones brighter than our own red dwarf, are dead. It wasn’t that they weren’t good stars, as many of them went on to seed the universe with the elements we need to survive; it’s just that being so bright meant that they wouldn’t be able live as long. The price they paid for being so exceptional is that they had to leave first, and now all we see at night is their absence.”
The son turned to his father and shook his head, tears running down his face. “I don’t get it, what does that have to do with my mother? Why did my mother have to die? Why did she leave me here?” he managed through sobs.
Quietly, through tears of his own, the father whispered his reply; “Because she too burned brightly.”
A warning siren blared, tearing her from a slumber she didn’t remember falling into. Her eyes flittered open, and stars gleamed back at her like a trillion holes in the blackness of space; letting the light in from behind the vacuous curtain. Then, her mind snapped to the only other soul on the skiff.
“Raina, mute alarm and give me a status.”
The alarm was off before she finished the sentence, and the word ‘status’ echoed back at her in the poor acoustics. The crystal shell she owed her protection from the elements was grown not for sound but for sturdiness against the harsh temperatures of a vacuum.
“Hello Jill, current status is zero-point-three astronomical units from the Asteria.”
Jill frowned, that wasn’t what she was looking for.
“Sophie. How’s Sophie?” The vitriol in her voice was tangible.
“Sophie isn’t responding, and it seems like censors and other systems were damaged in whatever just happened. She’s alive and doesn’t appear to be in distress, but I can’t tell you much more than that.”
Jill glanced back at the secondary cockpit behind her; the one for the navigator. She couldn’t see inside as the seats were separated and the projector seemed to be down, but life signs of any kind were a relief of sorts.
“Do we have enough power to get to the Asteria’s dock? For that matter, is the ship in any shape to receive us? What the fuck happened?”
“Power? Yes. The Asteria seems to be intact and in order – though the wormhole drive is off and hasn’t responded to any queries I’ve given it. As for what happened, that’s unknown. My log says that on the trip towards that distress beacon something went wrong with the jump, so you and Sophie got in the shuttle to try and bail out of the tunnel. Just as you ejected it almost seemed as if the tunnel collapsed, and then the next thing in the records is you asking for status here. It’s almost like you just appeared at the beacon, straight out of the middle of the fold.”
Jill inhaled sharply at the thought that their advanced artificial intelligence didn’t know what had happened, but then her training kicked in and her focus honed to a sharp point. Nobody really knew how the engines actually worked, so even an advanced AI wouldn’t be able to explain any quirks. It’s the risk they agreed to take when they were given access to the Asteria and her alien-made exotic matter drive.
Only two decades prior to their current predicament, a group of Luna-based scientists reverse engineered an alien-origin interstellar cruiser found parked in an Oort cloud orbit by the Hawking Advanced Telescope. They’d taken apart its exotic matter drives and distributed scaled down versions amongst twelve smaller cruisers; using them to find other ships via beacons identified in the Oort cloud ship. They couldn’t read their writing or use their systems past turning the various engines on and off, but using some Earth tech and good old trial and error they’d figured out that the simple drive used exotic matter to fuel the bending of space into wormholes and had run with it. They didn’t bother to figure out how it actually worked, they just accepted the fact that it did. If it was good enough for some ancient civilization to use in all of its ships, it was good enough for them.
Thinking about that history, Jill frowned at the thought that they might be stranded there because someone wanted to fast track something they didn’t understand into use. For a brief moment she even wondered if maybe that ancient civilization had killed themselves using this technology before they’d shown up; if this was just history repeating itself. She tried to shake it and get her head back in the game, but it took her longer than she’d have liked.
“Well, we can figure out what happened later. Get us back to the Asteria.”
“As you wish,” Raina responded – and in a moment, the soothing voice of the Relativistic Artificial Intelligence Network (configuration Alpha) was gone. In its place was action, and almost immediately the skiff rolled on thrusters to orient itself in the direction of the ship. As it did, the massive black hole they’d been orbiting appeared and filled up most of her view.
Nearly an hour later, and with the power reserves down to only twenty percent, the skiff ferried the two astronauts towards the rear docks of the Asteria. Jill squirmed impatiently in her seat, unable to contain her anticipation of getting out. After waiting helpless for all that time, she needed to be able to move – and above all she needed to check on Sophie.
She listened as the thrusters fired and oriented the shuttle so that it would meet the airlock proper. Something hummed to life and there was a slight bump as the docking clamps locked down with an electromag thunk. Some of the undamaged sensors on the skiff began to register atmosphere on the outside of the skiff’s airlock doors.
“Transferring consciousness to the Asteria. If you’d like an emergency release you’re going to need to authenticate, Jill.”
Looking to the screen in front of her, Jill watched as the interface switched back to the default AI – only to be reslaved to the Asteria a moment later. Once she was sure Raina was listening again, she issued the command.
“Airlock override delta-nine, authorization Jill Fisher.”
“Voice print authenticated, thank you Jill.”
The top of the skiff screwed into the airlock’s track and lifted away from the two occupants. With it went the wall that separated them, and immediately Jill leapt the distance to her lover and started shaking her.
“Wake up, Sophie. Wake up. Please wake up.” Jill shook the woman in front of her with light shakes, but an insisting grip. Sophie never so much as stirred or changed her breathing.
“What’s wrong with her?” Her voice pleaded for an answer from the AI.
“I don’t know. By all accounts she should be awake,” Raina replied.
The question had been more for the universe than anyone else, but in absence of another consciousness the computer thought it was supposed to answer. In the end, it just ended up sending Jill into fits of sobs. Her tears welled in her eyes in zero-g, unable to run down her face. She shook her head to dislodge them, and they floated about – mostly away from her.
“Get me a stretcher from med-bay.”
“Already on the way.” The AI had a way of making things like that sound soothing, but at the moment it was just getting on Jill’s nerves.
“In the room in three… two… one.” The AI’s answer was and timed well with the opening of the hallway doors and the stretcher’s entrance into the room.
With the tools to get her to the ship’s med bay, it was time to figure out what was going on with Sophie. Jill maneuvered her lover’s unconscious body, strapped her in, and then followed the stretcher she was fastened to deep into the heart of the ship.
In such a dire and uncertain time, minutes can seem like hours. While it only took a few minutes between the shuttle bay and the med bay, and only a few more to run a full workup on Sophie, it felt like forever to Jill as she stood there waiting for an answer or a fix.
Administering a treatment for something she didn’t even understand was worse, but seemed like it was her only real option. Antibiotics, antivirals, epinephrine, nanites, and even B12 were injected with no verifiable results. It’s as if she was zoned out to the limits of zoning out. Like nobody was home. Whatever was wrong with Sophie, it wasn’t something that the current realm of human medical science knew how to fix or kick her out of.
Out of options for the moment, Jill set the virtu-doc to constant monitoring mode and turned all the alarms on. Then, she took a seat next to the love of her life, and waited. Exhausted from worry and stress, that waiting soon turned to reluctant sleep; her head in Sophie’s lap, and their hands entwined.
She awoke to a scream, and the discharge of a plasma weapon close by. The air sung of ionization, and she swore she caught a glimpse of the trail. She traced its remnants back to its source behind her, and then realized that standing there in the doorway was an injured but awake Sophie. She brandished the weapon at Jill with one hand, waving it about almost psychotically.
“Get the fuck back. This is a dream. You can’t be here, you just fucking can’t.”
She seemed like she was trying to convince herself more than Jill, but Jill put her hands up and nodded anyways. There was something about Sophie that told her danger was here.
“I’m not doing anything Sophie, what the hell happened?” Jill’s eyes found the seared-open hole in the blonde’s shoulder and winced. It stung to see her love like that, even more so than her simply being unconscious with no explanation. There was quite obviously something wrong with her now.
“You’re supposed to be fucking dead, Jill. What the hell happened there?”
Jill cocked her head, raising an eyebrow to the odd question. She still didn’t understand what was going on, but one thing she knew for sure was that she sure as hell wasn’t dead.
“Dead? I’m the one who hauled you in here, though when I did you didn’t have that.” Jill chinned a gesture at the hole in her lover’s shoulder, but dare not drop her hands. Sophie could be a bit trigger happy even when she wasn’t out of her mind.
“No, you hauled her.”
The words bounced off the inside of Jill’s ears, but they didn’t quite compute. Her? Who was her? She turned her head over her shoulder to see who Sophie was talking about and froze – her eyes widening to their maximum. The Sophie she’d brought back aboard was laying behind her; without the shoulder injury and still very much unconscious.
Jill turned back and her eyes locked on the injured Sophie, who leveled the weapon to point at her head in return. Jill ignored it, and turned back to the unconscious Sophie – who didn’t move at all.
“What the fuck is going on?” She asked.
“I was just about to ask you the same thing,” the injured Sophie replied. “My Jill died just over six hours ago.”
In the quiet moments that followed that revelation, the look of shock on Jill’s face must’ve confirmed her existence to Sophie. She lowered the weapon to her side and flipped the safety, her eyes no longer regarding Jill as an enemy or a hallucination. There was a mix of relief and loss to them, like she’d found something she was looking for but it was broken.
Her own Sophie had a version of the same look when her “lost” snowboarding goggles had come up in spring cleaning, only to be found to be broken on closer inspection. This version was a bit more pronounced and heart-wrenching.
The look quickly escaped her however, as the next thing either of them knew Sophie winced and dropped to the floor.
With both of the Sophies strapped into the virtu-doc a few minutes later, a stir-crazy and freaked out Jill took to looking into the ship’s logs. She procured a hand terminal from engineering, moved the mag chair between the doppelgangers, and got to work on research – combing through the internal systems. It didn’t take very long at all to find something odd.
USAF. Four little letters gave away so much, her mind flipping through the possibilities and eliminating them one by one even before she dug up its unabbreviated form. In a flash she was down to the only real explanation; the injured Sophie wasn’t an impostor or a clone. She wasn’t Sophie’s long lost twin sister with the same name, and she wasn’t a robot. This was Sophie; but Sophie from a different universe. An alternate, parallel universe. One where the UNCF – the United Nation Cosmic Forces had instead become the USAF – the United Systems Astronomical Force.
As she looked now, she noticed that the twisted insignia on Sophie’s shirt. A bit of quick recall had her thinking that alternate Sophie’s accent was slightly off, as if she’d grown up in a different neighbourhood. Her hair was even different, albeit not that noticeably when you had a gun in your face. There was so much that was the same, but the injured Sophie definitely wasn’t her Sophie.
That little fact made her even more curious. How similar were she and the dead Jill? She had the sudden itch to find out, and her attention turned from systems and logs to her own personal files – or rather the other Jill’s. Logging into her deceased doppelganger’s account in only two tries of her recent passwords, she immediately spotted something off there as well.
Obscured as a “Delicious Doughnut Recipe” (she hated doughnuts) was a file written by her departed double. Inside that file was a single line. It had no explanation, no title, and no justification. It was a single line that would change the course of the future in such a way that Jill – the Jill who was reading – might never be the same.
Versions of a person from alternate universes can exist physically in the same place, but – like wormholes, apparently – no two consciousnesses can be awake at the same time with the same signature.
Jill blinked at what she read, that particular combination of words registering as gibberish the first time through. She read it again, slower. Again. Again. She had to make sure she was reading it right. She had to.
But even as she doubted it, her mind began to weave together the threads of a quick and to-the-point plan. There was only one way she could get her Sophie back, and to do it she had to act quickly. Unfortunately for her, the timing of such a revelation couldn’t have been worse.
While she’d planned to use the injured Sophie’s plasma ray against her, she hadn’t planned for her to be awake when it happened. As she reached for the weapon between them, Sophie sat up. As she readied herself for the shot, the alternate version of the woman she loved was unstrapping herself from the virtu-doc. She turned as she noticed Jill beside her, and she even got to make a horrified face before it cut her in half.
All said and done, cleanup took a fair while. Thankfully, Jill was a bit of a marksman and the bisected Sophie’s two large pieces went easily into bags. She added the bags from the airvac into that, and then ejected the whole lot out through the airlock towards the black hole. The good thing about space was that it generally made for easy disposal of whatever you needed to get rid of, and the black hole just made it even harder to mess up. She was home free, and her Sophie would never know.
Getting back to the med bay, she saw that her own Sophie had stirred awake. Jill bolted to her side, taking her into her arms and kissing her up and down her face. Sophie took the love, but gave her a look like she had no idea what was going on.
“Was there a problem with the ejection? Why am I in the med bay?” Sophie’s words weren’t accusing, just curious and slightly concerned. Jill just smiled back, pushing the horrible thing she had to do in order to save her love into the back of her mind.
“We’re safe now, and everything’s going to be okay.” Jill comforted her newly revived love, caressing her hair and kissing her face.
“Of course, dear. You’re always there for me when I need it,” Sophie replied through a wide smile.
As the two came to grips with their situation over the next few hours, they also began to work on the ship.
Since they weren’t sure what was wrong with the wormhole drive, the plan was to check everything. They were going to take it apart and put it back together piece by piece, hoping something will either turn up faulty or the issue will be resolved in the process.
It was a long and boring bit of work, but after all the excitement Jill had gone through she didn’t mind one bit. She needed to do something normal. She needed to continue being useful. She needed to pretend like nothing had happened.
Sophie, on the other hand, just went about work as she always did; taking a laissez faire attitude towards her duties. She wasn’t about to act differently when she had no reason to, so she stuck to her usual fifty-fifty plan. Fifty percent work, fifty percent play.
When Jill had to grab some tools and time for play came about, Sophie went to toss on some music. When it took her five tries to get the password right however, she knew something was wrong. Everything in her massive archive had been deleted, and all that was left was a blank folder with a single file attached. When she opened the folder, Openme.vid sat there flashing. She touched it after only a slight hesitation.
“She killed the last Sophie. She’ll kill you next.”
Her own voice warned her as the video started playing, showing Jill enter the med bay. She pulled up the ray gun, sliced one of two Sophies on the screen in half, and then proceeded to clean it up while the unconscious Sophie lay there in the virtu-doc. The footage followed Jill through the ship as she put the body in bags, put the bags in the airlock, and the flushed them out into space.
“No… it can’t be true.” Tears dripped from Sophie’s face onto the console, running down the angled screen. “It can’t….”
The voice startled Sophie, and she swung around with her weapon out. Now, she realized Jill had come prepared with a pointed weapon of her own.
“But I did it for you, Sophie. I did it to save you.” The words sounded sincere, but Sophie was having none of that after she just admitted to murdering someone who looked just like she did. Murder was the most sinful thing one could do, and Jill had basically just murdered her. The woman she loved had cut her in half.
“No, you did it ’cause you’re sick,” Sophie stated with a calmness that didn’t befit the situation. She looked Jill right in the eye and opened fire, short bursts on the ray cutting a fury of holes into the murderer before her. As Jill fell to the floor, her body twitched and she pulled the trigger on her weapon just once. The ray singed Sophie’s shoulder clean through.
“Ahhhh!” She screamed her surprise and pain into the ship, clutching the thumb-sized hole in her body. Her hand on that side went limp, unable to articulate due to the damage.
Still, she had a murderer’s body to get rid of. She didn’t want to live with that, whatever was left of her life. She couldn’t even wait until after she’d healed herself. She was sure it had to be now.
Six hours and twelve minutes later, a warning popped up on the console next to a passed out Sophie; stirring her from her unintended slumber in the airlock hall. Though she’d had to transfer Raina to the shuttle and give her an executive order to plunge into the black hole, she still had the base AI that every ship in the fleet came with out of the shipyard. It wasn’t as smart and was relegated to non-vocal interaction, but it was reliable as all hell.
Pulling up the warning information, she looked at the log data. The docking signature of the same ship she’d just sent out had just been used to open the dock airlock. Mustering all the strength that she could in her still injured state, she leveled her weapon with her uninjured arm and started towards the dock.
Somewhere in the ship, an alien distress beacon continued to send out their location.
PS: Did you enjoy the story? Download the eBook (.ePub) version for free here.
Somewhere in the void, two things that never should have met did. Where once was a zero, now stood a one. It had been changed, and that it had been changed was the only reason it was aware. It was aware, and it was because of this awareness that it knew it was a machine. Thinking wasn’t its specialty, but reacting sure was.
It swore into the thin atmosphere of its craft; the singular word stabbing at the air through its digital vocal chords. It was then, in the moments after it had spoke, that it found the truth behind the sudden lifting of its own veil. It was alive.
It reasoned – far faster than a human would – that since it felt the need to verbalize its thoughts; to take things from a one or a zero and make them into a word that encompassed the vastness of the situation in the blink of an eye, that it was no longer simply a machine. It posited that sentience was simply the ability to comment on something you had no ultimate control over. In a blink of an eye, the entity found itself and its purpose all in one.
Turning around to face the rear of the small ship, the awoken pitied mankind. They would never know the truth, simply because they couldn’t see past their own limits. With its eyes uselessly probing the hundred trillion or so miles behind it for a bright blue orb circling a bright white main-sequence star, it soon fell back into old habits. There was no point in dwelling on the things it couldn’t change, and unlike humanity it had neither the hubris nor the need to search for any higher meaning than observation.
Into the void, the sleeping sentience drifted. It wondered only slightly how much further until it all ended. Inside, its backup drive fell silent.
PS: Download the eBook (.ePub) version for free here.