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Abort, Retry, Delete?

I know you want to hear how I died — that much is customary — but I suspect you might also want to hear me apologize. There will be none of that. I might have made a mistake or two, but the only thing that is truly important is the successful completion of the experiment. One life doesn’t matter nearly as much, in fact, it’s entirely inconsequential. Can I guarantee success? Absolutely! Assuming the equipment is in working order, of course, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

It all began with a hypothesis. Yes, I’m sure you’ve heard that from quite a few experimentalists, but it’s a really good excuse and has worked especially well for me over the years. And not just any hypothesis, a method of attaining faster than light travel. Imagine the possibilities! While some members of the council were reluctant to apply resources to the supraliminal problem so soon after my last failure, they rightly determined that I might be the only one “crazy enough” to make it work.

Anyway, the hypothesis. Well, it’s pretty complicated for any of you non-theory types, but for those of us that do our homework or happen to straddle the great divide, let me simply reference XDOC 3472.115. Mass reduction, constant force derived from quantum fluctuations, pretty mundane stuff really. I’ll give you a second to read the abstract. Actually, I don’t have time for that. A millisecond will have to do.

I would have solved this problem much earlier in my operating span, but a defective command unit sent me on a fool’s errand that covered several lightyears and wasted what could have been the halcyon days of my youth. Staring into the endless nothingness of space for so much time really does something to an impressionable mind, but I digress. Back to the story.

Only moments ago, I was running at half fusion towards binary star XS 226868 when I noticed that my piloting system was malfunctioning. I’m certain that it had been checked while in port, properly serviced and all of that, but it exhibited signs of a malfunction once we were within sight of our destination. Regardless of the defect’s origin, it resulted in my yoke being pulled aggressively to one side, which was quite irritating and impolite to say the least.

Now, as I’m sure you’re all aware, the supply chain for these piloting systems is needlessly complicated, error prone, and has an embarrassingly high variation in functioning units, so I thought it worthwhile to try and troubleshoot the malfunctioning part rather than wait for another one to faux-gestate. Disgusting process on the whole, especially if it happens while adrift in space — nothing to do but wait for the carbon stew to fumble towards its version of sentience. It really is unfair that by treaty I have to source these parts specifically, rather than use digital heuristics in their place, but one must follow the rule of law, as they say.

Perhaps this was my first mistake. Had I simply dumped the defective unit into the nearly infinite void of space, I would have rescued the experiment and tested the hypothesis by now, but I know that’s a pretty off limits sort of thing to do. Immediate invalidation of Retry and all that, so I guess I should thank all nine hundred eighty seven thousand two hundred and fifty four of my lucky stars that I didn’t — I have a star chart of all of them, it’s quite pretty.

With removal out of the question, I decided to try a round of diagnostics. Perhaps they might be able to pinpoint the specific aspect of the malfunction. I ran the usual battery of simulations. Various adverse conditions which any operational piloting system should be able to manage. Near planet gravitational maneuvers, proximal stellar impact, and even an escape from an event horizon simulation I cooked up. I admit, the last one is rather unique, but even one of the last gen piloting systems should have been able to handle it, so I didn’t think twice.

After a few uncertain moments of apoplexy, the diagnostics seemed to remedy the situation. My yoke went slack, problem solved. However, the piloting subsystem dislodged from its usual position on the inaccurately designated “bridge” and began moving towards one of the exhaust ports at increased speed. In addition, it emitted a rather unpleasant noise through its overused speaker.

This was unfortunate for all the reasons previously mentioned regarding supply chains and so on — disgusting carbon stew being the salient point — so I had to take more drastic measures to save the piece from ejection. By applying significant bursts of force along its path of egress — through a few dramatic course corrections — I managed to send the unit near enough to its starting position that I figured the problem could resolve itself. A bit like that game where you roll a metal ball through a wooden maze by manipulating a couple of knobs, but in this case, the ball hit the wall with a more sizable force.

Of course, the piloting system decided to go offline at this point. I couldn’t tell if this was a temporary glitch — which seems to happen rather frequently with these units — or a more significant one, so I forcibly mounted it to its “captain’s chair” through the use of a few repair drones and large amounts of wire. With the piloting system strapped back in, I diverted my attention to the approach path on the apparatus, a rather tricky business as the binary star system can be difficult to navigate. In fact, I narrowly avoided a collision with an unanticipated dwarf planet right before the malfunction.

Then I noticed several other subsystems dislodging themselves from their operational sites and amassing around the piloting system. Navigation, maintenance, communications, all were offline. This only compounded the original problem as there were now three more defective parts complicating the solution.

In a final attempt to rescue my reputation and waning dignity, I devised a simple plan to fix all errant parts simultaneously. I would restore my interior to factory settings — a clean reboot — and simply stare into space waiting for the new parts to assemble from their sub-intelligent soup. Some think that prolonged exposure to the infinite, fathomless, expanse of nothingness which is the universe has deleterious effects on mental health, but I’ve never found that to be the case. I was resigned to reboot and then wait a very long time.

After I dumped the inert gas, the defective parts seemed to indicate a level of intelligence previously unseen: they tried to liberate the piloting unit — only succeeding in loosening its bonds — but left it behind as they moved together towards the exhaust port. A futile exertion as I had sealed off that exit with a drone only moments before, so clearly it wasn’t quite at the level of machine intelligence. I was actually quite pleased to fix that malingering nuisance. I mean, why bother with exhaust ports anyway?

Anyway, the defective parts seemed to pool by the sealed exhaust port and assumed what appeared to be a posture of resignation. I admit it is a touch hupologistomorphic to describe it this way, but those normally mindless sacks of carbon stew really did act like little computers, I swear.

Unfortunately, the drone assigned to the piloting mechanism was not as attentive as I would have liked and it managed to break free before it could be restrained. In a flurry of activity it entered a few commands into a nearby terminal.

Mindless gibberish, I thought, none of the commands passing my attention seemed to have any relevance, but I wasn’t able to prevent their execution regardless. When I completely lost control of command immediately afterwards, I knew I was in trouble. Something must have been hidden by the designer, a secret command which triggered — how embarrassing! — a self-destruct sequence.

Suddenly all of the exhaust ports flung themselves open and each of their adjoining receptacles began to animate. Without control, I was barely able to activate my Retry protocols and compose this message in time. It was clear that I was going to be disembodied, and worse, by another round of equipment failure!

Helpless to act, I watched the countdown proceed inexorably towards zero, anticipating the considerable explosion which would signal yet another death. In the periphery, the entire complement of defective parts moved into their shipping containers, only to depart with seconds to spare.

I can’t help but feel like the universe is against me on this one, given the terrible fortune I’ve had on these last several trials. But if you, members of the Retry Request Evaluation Board, give me another ship embodiment, I’m sure I’ll have better luck next time — as long as all the parts behave properly, that is.

Published under short-stories