By Alexander Austin
“Annabel. Are you afraid?”
“What an interesting line of questioning Vaux. What do you mean?” Annabel’s fans whirred quietly as she waited for his response.
“Of anything.” Vaux shifted around aimlessly in the captain’s chair, watching the inky black of space slowly move around the ship. Stars breaking the monotony of endless darkness with their light. It was several minutes before the computer responded. Calculations probably, he thought to himself.
“I do not think Glascorp programmed me with the capacity for such emotion. I was designed for purely functional purposes. Although there is a layer of personality that I use for general interaction. I can show you my user’s man-”
“That’s okay Annabel.” Vaux interrupted. “I was just curious.” He placed his hands on his lap and sighed. “I am glad I have you here.” He craned his head and stared at the ceiling and called out to it. “Annabel, how long has it been since I last ate?”
“About 10 hours.” the ceiling responded.
Vaux rose from his chair and started to head to the kitchen. Going down the hall, he passed several of the passengers. Silently sleeping in ignorance. He soon arrived at the spartan kitchen and paused for a moment before settling in a booth. It was a drab place, steel tables with booths, simple plates, and basic silverware. The only break from the dull gray of steel was a small bar lit up with a bright blue neon pattern.
“What’s on the menu?” He said jokingly, a brief flash of a smile gracing his face.
“We have a selection of rice and beans with apple pie for dessert, or a simple chowder soup.” Annabel listed off more meals but Vaux wasn’t paying attention.
“Pie sounds good”
“Of course,” Annabel replied. She then prepared the kitchen machines and in a few minutes, a hot apple pie was served.
“How much longer until we reach our destination?” Vaux wondered aloud as he ate.
“The remaining journey will take us 92 years, four months, one week…” Annabel droned on as Vaux focused on his pie. 92 years he thought to himself.
Vaux wondered how the engineers and the passengers were doing. Probably sleeping soundly. God, why did this have to happen to him? Twenty years ago, Vaux signed on as a pilot with a Glascorp colonization mission on a whim. It would be the first of its kind from Glascorp, which was typically a mining company. The goal was XLA-01, a watery exoplanet that was suitable for life according to Glascorp scientists. It would be 100 years of travel before they reached their destination. The ship’s crew and passengers would simply go into hypersleep until they reached it. Everything should have gone smoothly. But unfortunately, Vaux’s sleep pod malfunctioned two years into the trip. He has been awake for five years now. Vaux remembered the first three of those years, raving around the ship, hoping and begging for a way to fix it in a mad hope. But by year four, he gave up. He dared not wake any other members of the crew, for fear of condemning them to the same terrible fate. Annabel kept him good enough company anyway.
Vaux finished the bland pie and got up from the cold table. “Annabel.” He called “I am going to bed now. Wake me up in 12 hours”. He caressed his long brown hair with his hand as he sighed. Sleep was his only escape from this steel prison. He slept frequently and as much as he could until hunger inevitably woke him up. He didn’t dream of home, there was nothing for him there. On earth he didn’t have anybody, no one cared if he lived or died. Sure, in the beginning he dreamt of earth, things he would never experience, and reliving past memories of his childhood. But now he dreamt of nothing.
“Right you are Captain.” Annabel chirped.
Vaux walked through the maze of bland steel hallways until he reached the captain’s quarters and reclined in one of the leather armchairs, it was heated of course. Since he was the only one awake and would be for quite some time, he decided to make himself captain. Who could stop him? If it was one thing Glascorp didn’t cut corners on, it was luxuries for their officers. He wondered how much ass-kissing the real captain had to do in order to get a room like this. He looked to his right and gazed through the giant wall-sized window into the void. Those specks of light, how beautiful and uncaring. I wonder if… “Annabel…” he started.
“Yes, Captain?” Annabel responded. Vaux paused a moment before responding.
“Do you care about me? At all?” he questioned. He immediately regretted that statement That’s too forward, she is gonna get all flustered again he thought.
“I don’t wish for you to die if that is what you are talking about.” She paused. “My primary directive is to keep every passenger alive. To the best of my ability.” Annabel said.
“Well, what is going to happen when I die of old age? I can hardly live for another 92 years.” Vaux said sadly. It was true, Vaux left earth when he was 28. According to his own counting, he was now 33.
“That is an interesting question. I am sure we can answer that later. As of now, I do not have the processing power to fathom such a question” Annabel responded. So, she does care, even if a little bit.
“Will you miss me?” Vaux sat silently for what seemed like hours until Annabel responded.
“I do not know.” She replied calmly.
Annabel was now struggling to answer his questions. Vaux decided that he had prodded her enough and he should probably let her think about it by herself. He fixated on a star in the distance and stared at it, it stared back at him. He tried to see if he could witness it budge but it stood still among the shadows. He gave up and let his eyes close and soon he fell into a deep slumber.
Vaux awoke slowly. He opened one eye and saw the stars once more. He wondered if any of them had changed. Cold and unfeeling, they were a grim reminder of his situation. Vaux was assailed by twinges of fear and regret. He closed his eyes again. Images of his past started flooding him, he thought of things that could have gone differently if he had said that, done this different.
“Vaux?” Annabel called “You seem distressed”
“It will pass I’m sure,” Vaux said. She noticed.
“I must ask you to visit the medical bay” Annabel cooed
“No, I am fine, honestly,” Vaux assured her. No sense in worrying her. Vaux stared into one of the security cameras in the room. “I. Am. Fine.” Vaux repeated. He sensed that Annabel wasn’t convinced. Vaux was about to repeat himself once more when he was suddenly interrupted.
There was a loud and thunderous boom that echoed through the entire ship. The room started revolving. Vaux gripped the armrest as the ship swung suddenly to the side. Sirens started blaring instantly.
“Captain Vaux” Annabel sounded on the loudspeakers. “Your assistance is needed on the main deck”. He got up from his chair with great effort and made a mad dash for the front of the ship, dodging a couple toolboxes and some cleaning equipment as they rocketed down the hallway. He burst into the bridge and he gasped in terror what was happening through the portside windows.
“Jesus Christ!” Vaux yelled. An asteroid field had appeared in front of them. Large chunks of space rock slammed into the ship relentlessly. With each boom, Vaux could feel the ship starting to tear apart. The grating steel pierced his eardrums as rock collided with the ship. Vaux yelled at Annabel as he jumped into the commander’s chair.
“Annabel! Help me get us out of here!”
“I am not programmed to pilot this ship to this degree. I only maintain the ship’s course.” Annabel’s voice was hollow. Vaux shook his head and expertly angled the ship upward, out of the asteroid field, and pushed the ships thrusters to maximum. The ship roared as it rushed forward out of the belt. Tiny asteroids clanged the front of the ship as it broke out and over the asteroid belt and into safety. Vaux released the breath that he didn’t know he was holding. He sighed and looked down at his lap.
“Annabel, what do you mean you weren’t programmed to pilot this ship?” Vaux said in a low voice.
“I was intended for light adjustments. I do not have the computing capacity for more extreme situations.” Annabel replied quickly
“What would have happened if I didn’t wake up?” Vaux retorted. “Was Glascorp ready to kill hundreds of people on the off chance they didn’t run into an asteroid belt or some other disaster?” He started to stand up and stomp back towards the captain’s quarters when it dawned on him. Vaux collapsed back into the chair.
“I was supposed to wake up. Wasn’t I?” he said quietly. Annabel was silent. “Annabel. Tell me. I was supposed to wake up. Right?” No reply, Vaux’s voice was deadly quiet now. “Annabel. As captain of this ship. I order you to tell me.”
“I am not programmed for-” Annabel started
“Bullshit you are. Tell me. Why did I wake up? Annabel!” Vaux got up and started yelling at the screen.
“Glascorp saw it fit to save costs by-”
“SAVE COSTS!? BY DOOMING ME IN THIS GOD FORSAKEN PLACE? I SWEAR I’LL RUN THIS SHIP BACK INTO THAT BELT!” Vaux roared. Annabel’s screen flickered.
“My primary directive is to keep all passengers alive, to the best of my ability.” She paused “You are now a danger to the passengers.” Annabel said coldly. Vaux’s face turned pale as a sheet.
“What are you going to do?” Vaux whispered.
“Eliminate the danger,” Annabel replied.
“No! Wait, nevermind! I was just mad. I’ll do anything!” Vaux slid out of his chair and begged.
Vaux stumbled out of the bridge and started running back down into the hallways. Doors closing behind him he ran with his heart in his mouth. Annabel was going to try and trap him. Vaux racked his brain, thinking where he could go to escape. Annabel had cameras everywhere… except. The loading bays. Vaux adjusted his course and took a sharp left down a hallway.
“Vaux… do not do this.” Annabel cooed over the loudspeakers.
“Watch me!” he yelled confidently.
He busted into one of the loading bays breathlessly. His heart thumping like a drum. The bay was filled with various machinery and mountains of supply crates. Alright, safe for now, gotta stall for more time, his train of thought was interrupted as he heard the slow mechanical drone of the airlock opening. He turned as the massive bay doors started to part revealing nothing but darkness. The void called to him. Vaux tried to yell but the air was knocked from his lungs. He felt his feet go out from under him and then the creeping cold freezing his body.
“It did not have to end like this Vaux”
There was a rush of movement, and then, blissfully floating. He adjusted his eyes and saw stars again. They witnessed him as he spun endlessly in the black. Cold and uncaring, they offered no warmth. He closed his eyes for the last time. There was nothing… but silence.
“Opening Pilot Pod #3” Annabel chimed. Somewhere in the bowels of the ship a new face awoke.
“Where am I? How long was I out?” the new pilot said as she rubbed her eyes.
“There has been a malfunction with your sleeping pod. You have awoken 92 years early.”