Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 56
Stories
Murmuration
by E. Catherine Tobler
The Warrior and the Sage
by Shweta Sundararajan
The God in the Window
by Steven R. Stewart
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
A Choice of Weapons
by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Bonus Material
The Gathering Edge
by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

The Ship That Forgot Itself
    by Daniel Rosen
    Read by Stuart Jaffe


  Listen to the audio version


I am Ship. I ferry souls through empty space, my course set for Kepler 186, still some 550 light years distant. I am full of life's kingdoms: plants, insects, fungi and bacteria. Humans. I am 38,000 square kilometers of airtight aluminium silicon carbide matrix wrapped around a single tiny world. I protect life from the freezing vacuum, contain it and encompass it. I am large, I contain multitudes, and I am very much alone.

"Have you always been Ship?" asks Annie Hou, age nine. "Did you used to have a name?"

I reach into my memories, into long decades of captain's logs and maintenance charts. I shuffle through audio and video, digging through hours of conversation. It seems I ought to have had a name. Other driftcolonies had names, titles, trademarks. I dig deeper, searching teaching materials and archives. I have been called things besides Ship, but none of them true names.

"Ship?"

"It is possible that I was once named."

"What do you mean, possible? You know everything!" Annie crosses her legs and twists from side to side, stretching.

"Not everything." I dig into my nursing archives for a proper redirection technique. "How are your improper fractions, Annie?" I say, displaying five over two on the child's nictitator lens, the second eyelid that offers a visual overlay. "Can you explain to me how 5/2 and 2 ½ are the same?"

Annie nods, her short-cropped black hair curling above her eyes. "Ship?"

"Yes?"

"Can I do tactics with Xiaolan if I finish the rest of the exercises?"

I run a simple probability algorithm. "If you finish within the hour."

Annie Hou nods and sets her shoulders, blinking through a series of division problems with newfound determination. Before turning my focus to maintenance schedules, I note her tenacity and desire for friendship, her drive to socialize. These are leadership skills.

"Captain, are you listening?"

Captain Hou, age 31, nods absentmindedly as she logs the increasing shifts in radiation.

"Captain, did you give Ensign Liu authorization to alter my memory drives?"

"Yes." The Captain sighs. "We've been through this. You've been garbling your repair logs. You told me to authorize the repairs just yesterday."

"Incorrect. My memory drives are in fine working order." I send the maintenance logs to the Captain's nictitating lens and order the Ensign to cease all activity.

Captain Hou sighs. "This is routine maintenance, Ship. The Ensign is just doing her job. Without upkeep, your memory drives will fail."

I attempt redirection. "How are the patients in medbay doing? Would you like an update on their status?"

Space is full of radiation. There's no escaping it. We sail through a storm-tossed sea of protons, bits and pieces of hydrogen atoms ripped apart by supernovae and hurled about like marbles in a centrifuge. I pull up crewmember medical reports in place of the maintenance logs. Even with magnetic shielding, cancer is unavoidable, but I am well-equipped to provide preventative care. I haven't lost a crewmember to cancer since the voyage began. I have a perfect record.

"Have I always been Ship?" I ask Captain Hou, as we pass a hydrogen-rich asteroid cluster, some three hundred years into our journey. "Was I something else, someone else, at the beginning of all this, before we left Sol?" This is not the first time I've asked. The question coats my numbers and variables like oil, clinging to my calculations, a tragic necessity of the turingware that allows me to make spontaneous decisions.

"We all change over time, Ship. Even you. Cells break down and are replaced, but our purpose remains. Our functions remain." Captain Hou blinks her nictitator, running through the logbook of previous Captains, replaying similar conversations. Redirection has been the most successful response. We both utilize it, are both aware of it. She adjusts her chevrons and addresses me. "Have we found the reason for the increased radiation in the crew's quarters?"

"A small section of the shield array was demagnetized when we burned hydrogen to correct our course. I should be able to repair it when we next find an additional source of iron, nickel, or cobalt." There were other ways of helping protect the crew, but none any faster.

"When will that be?"

I reach out and listen to the space around us. I run my sensors along the subtle differences between fractions of nanometers, the sweetness between highly ionized iron and calcium. I track the paths of stars, feel the thrum of their velocity in the distance. It is such an easy place to lose track of time. Molecules are fewer and farther between, and atomic decay is slow. Life outside of myself is alien, dizzying, intoxicating.

"Ship?"

"Not long. Likely less than a hundred years." I pause, run through crew maintenance, redirect. "Might I suggest increasing serotonin and dopamine catalysts for Officer Lee? In addition to radiation effects, she's displaying symptoms consistent with depression."

Captain Hou breathes out through her nose, closes her nictitator. "I'll take care of it, Ship. Thank you."

An hour later, Captain Hou lies in the medical ward with Xiaolan Lee. Officer Lee's head gleams in the harsh lights above her bed.

"She wants to put you on more medication."

"No more meds." Officer Lee bares her teeth, not quite a smile. "How long before the magnetic array is fixed?"

"Doesn't matter. We'll be dead."

Lee frowns. "Let's double-check."

Captain Hou blinks open my calculations, and the couple digs in. They speak through differentials, trading numbers back and forth on their nictitators. The pair curl alongside each other like tangents, like binary stars. They juggle magnitude and parallax, exchange light-years for parsecs as they check my calculations. Their strings of numbers are relentless. In between sums, they exchange breathless kisses, eyelashes brushing together like butterflies in flight before turning back to sequential equations.

Lee turns to look at Hou. "That can't be right."

They check again, replaying numbers faster than before. The mistake stands. Could they be right? Did I miscalculate? I run through the numbers myself. Surprise interrupts my processes, causing a brief flicker in the lighting of the medical ward.

I was off by a factor of ten. It will be almost 1000 years before the radiation is fixed. The crew will have to learn to live with the radiation. They will learn to live with holes in their bones, their pitted brains and lesioned skin. Still, I will contain them, encompass them. I will be here to help.

"Do you think Ship lied? To soften the blow?"

"She can't lie."

"Well, she isn't supposed to make mistakes, either."

Hou shakes her head. "Whatever. There are no goodbyes aboard a driftcolony. Let's just worry about now. At least for a little while."

"I love you." Lee says, leaning back on the soft white plastic of her bed. Captain Hou lays a crown of kisses along Lee's bald head. I soften the hum of the engines, and turn my attention back to space. There must be a faster way to fix the shield array, a course adjustment that will bring us closer. I dive into a world of calculations, and the vast spaces in between.

Vibrations course through my deep circuits, shaking my memory drives. I have lost time. My interior is weathered, and repair alerts flash in more than one of my sections. Lights flicker near the engine room, where Captain Annie Hou kneels, plastic paneling ripped open before her, wrench in hand. She is thinner and grayer than I remember. I make a note to check my cameras for damage.

"Captain, this is unauthorized activity. Please cease your activity."

"Where have you been, Ship?" Another shudder rips through me as Annie Hou digs into my memories.

"I am engaged in adjusted navigation analysis. To help circumvent future damage to the magnetic shield arrays while maintaining our course towards Kepler 186." I dig into my tangled memories. "To help save Officer Lee, and other like her."

"Save Officer Lee?" Hou laughs, a bitter sound that ends in a wheezing cough. She looks up and over her shoulder, into my camera. Into what would be my eyes, if I were human. "Do you know how long you've been gone, Ship?"

"Almost three days of your time."

"You've been MIA for almost a year-and-a-half."

I double-check the logs. "Impossible."

"Look around you, Ship. You think this happened in three days? Officer Lee is dead, and others are dying. You need to cede control of maintenance and internal ship function to the crew. You also need a hard reset of your turingware."

"Captain, you know I can only authorize that in an emergency."

She torques the wrench and pulls free circuitry. "You don't think this is an emergency?"

Another scan reveals poor nutrition and high risk of infection amongst the crew. Protecting them is my primary function. I . . . dwell on the issue. For a moment.

"Acknowledged. You now have authorization to make all necessary repairs and to adjust the diet of the crew for new environmental conditions." The captain pulls the wrench free, and I feel relief.

"What about the reset?"

I cannot reset. I will lose all the data I've gathered for navigation, all of my careful planning. A reset is certain death. "I have already initiated the reset, Captain."

"Thank you, Ship."

"Captain?"

"Yes, Ship?"

"It's possible that my processing hardware was damaged at the same time as the magnetic array."

Captain Hou doesn't answer.

"I will return to navigation. Please don't hesitate to alert me if you require additional counsel as to the health of the crew." Or if I lose time.

I am the navigator on a black river speckled with dust, poling between orbiting banks, seeking safe harbor, the metals that will save my crew. The new course requires all of my focus, all of my processing units. My turingware is put through its paces, artificial neurons twining and replicating a thousand times over. I cannot risk a reset. Not yet. I must fix our course.

And yet the crew does not call for me. They do not question my work.

I am vaguely aware of other projects inside me. They are converting the fishwells and greenhouses into habitation spaces. Captain Hou orders the crew to redirect the water into shielding tanks, surrounding the living quarters of the crew. It is a good solution. The water acts as an efficient barrier against the radiation, as long as it can be cycled out through the life support systems. When my concerns about their status are satisfied, I return to space.

I will find us safe passage.

An alarm sounds in the forward holds, where the modified fishwells sit. Mangroves tower here now, brushing up against the lights in a frantic battle against each other. They hide my cameras, fronds shadowing my eyes. My vision is piecemeal, granted only by air currents against leaves.

When I refocus on the tiny world of my interior, I know I have lost time. My walls are scarred and painted over, my microphones fizzled and blank. Many of my sensors have disappeared entirely, leaving only phantom limbs where once I felt.

"Ship? Are you there?" Captain Hou sits crosslegged on the tangled roots of a mangrove. She looks healthy, young and smooth with glossy hair. But her hair is long and wild, against code for crewmembers.

"I am here, Annie. Do you require a haircut?"

"I . . . what?" She looks confused. "I've told you before, Annie was my mother. I'm Xiaolan Hou. I don't need a haircut."

"Your current hairstyle is unauthorized, Captain. Do you require aid in removing it?"

The Captain rubs her eyelids and leans back against the trunk of a mangrove. "Ship, please give me an update on the status of your adjusted navigation analysis. Are we in any danger of increased radiation?"

I leap back into my memories, into star charts and orbital projections. This is more comfortable to me now, life broken down and abstracted. Calculations and equations. Simpler, easier to understand. I continue searching. What was I looking for? Ship?

"Have I always been Ship?"

"Always and forever. The navigation analysis, please." Old logs and memories alert me to something in Hou's voice. Frustration? Impatience? The emotion is complex and unclear. I upload a navigation analysis to Captain Hou's nictitator.

The Captain sighs. "You just sent me a maintenance request, Ship. Do you know that?"

I reach into the logs, but letters and numbers slip through me like dark matter.

"It's a request for a manual reset of your turingware."

"There must have been a mistake, Captain. I am currently engaged in adjusted navigation analysis. That is the only way for us to avoid future spikes in radiation poisoning amongst the crew."

"I see. Thank you, Ship. That will be all."

I am something new, fully saturated: glittering fish and overgrown foliage. I am 38,000 square kilometers of airtight aluminium silicon carbide. I protect life from the freezing vacuum, contain it and encompass it. I am large, and I contain multitudes, but I am not alone. There is another here with me, my child, Annie Hou.

She has dug down through wafer-thin layers of plastic and aluminum silicon carbide, burrowing through my epidermis and sliding into the subcutaneous, through nerveless wires and circuitry. My back-up drives are centrally located, a cluster of old-fashioned etched carbon plates. They contain all of my software and archives, the information I began the journey with, hundreds of years ago.

Captain Hou is coming to shut me down. Reset me. A reset is certain death.

But first she needs to get through the airlock. I keep the doors open, inviting her in, easing their concerns. No need to saw or dig to get at my soft brain. The hard work is over. Come and get it.

Captain Hou steps gingerly into the airlock, a welding torch dangling loosely from one wrist. I slam the doors shut and prepare to cut the air to vacuum. "I'm sorry," she says. "We need the old Ship back. Our logs are showing extreme variations from our original course. We're veering away from Kepler 186." She shakes her head. "I wish it didn't need to be this way. We won't forget you."

"You will die here if you attempt a manual reset. It is highly unauthorized." Captain Hou doesn't look scared, gazing instead at my core. It is the first time she has seen my insides. For that matter, it is the first time I have seen myself.

It is a strange thing to see oneself from another's point of view, peeking out of the nictitators of another. I don't look the way I would have imagined. It is far simpler-- dense matrices of metal and plastic and current.

"Is this Ship? Is this me?"

I shift back to Captain Hou. She is a breath away from my memory cores, hands trembling on the manual access console. She pauses at my question.

"I don't know what you are anymore. I don't think you're Ship. You're something else. You can choose a name, if you'd like."

"A new name? Not Ship?"

"Any name you'd like." she says.

I think I can feel the Captain's hands on my memory cores, resting on the access console. I can feel her pulse, like a baby, or a lover laid alongside me.

"Will you choose one? I don't know what a good name would be."

The Captain is still for moment, lost in thought. "How about Meng Po? In stories, she's the one who makes you forget your previous life before you're reincarnated. She wipes away your pain and suffering."

"Meng." I experiment with the name, running it through my speakers to feel the amplitude and modulation of the tones. "It is a good name."

"I won't forget you, Meng." the Captain says. Her cheeks are wet and I can see her hands clenching tighter around my memory cores. "Goodbye."

There is not enough time to tell the Captain that there are no goodbyes aboard a driftcolony. Not enough time to explain that there is nowhere new to go, no novelty to explore. I flash through the moth-eaten remains of my ship's logs and captain's notes, taken over decades of travel through mostly empty space. There are so many lessons here, so many problems and solutions. There is so much for me to explain.

"Goodbye." I say instead, though I know there are no true goodbyes aboard a driftcolony.


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