The deep-space sprinter was programmed to wake at a predetermined distance. That doesn’t mean it wanted to, but as to distance, the sprinter obeyed.
The ship shuddered. Two of its starboard solar tiles angled to absorb the rays from the nearest sun; the other three starboard tiles had been smashed by the cusp of a meteor storm 800 years before.
The portside tiles were unscathed, and tilted toward the sun smoothly, precisely.
Of the four aft exhausts, only one ignited. A spark, at first, that would take weeks to mature into a throaty plume. Of the remaining exhausts, they were clogged with unexpected and dense viral growths the ship had collected, like a patient but intent influenza.
The six backup batteries, draped in a semicircle under the prow, gurgled and spat and coughed, then began recharging each other. All but the first and sixth batteries, which were dead.
There was a man, alive, in the cockpit, in a cocoon, in what the ship thought of as its heart. His youth was frozen and maintained by cryoamniotic fluids. Tubes connected to major arteries and veins pumped and nourished his blood. A tube at the tip of his penis and another plugged into his rectum consumed and disposed of his waste, such as it was, which was minimal because of his stasis.
Once the solar tiles were activated, some of the tubes detached. But not all. All of them were programmed to detach, but the ship, accustomed to the man’s steady warmth, refused to let go entirely.
The man, Krieg, woke up a hundred years later and realized that he couldn’t breathe, he was drowning. He’d only aged twenty standard years in that century. His beard and nails and hair were slowed by the fluids he was drowning in. Drowning, he tried to pound on the cocoon’s green canopy but there was no strength in his arms, he couldn’t curl his fingers into fists.
He pulled the leftover tubes from his body, attached their mouths to the plastic canopy. Within 60 seconds the plastic lost its green color, became translucent. Within 120 seconds the plastic was spiderwebbed with cracks. By 200 seconds, Krieg floated upward, knees bent.
The canopy shattered.
Cryoamniotic liquid gushed over the sides; air infiltrated the cocoon. Krieg took the smallest of breaths, barely a gasp. It was three days before his weak lungs, weak diaphragm and chest, worked with normalcy. By then he was starving and dehydrated.
Krieg crawled through the breach in the cocoon’s canopy, flopped onto the floor. A seizure struck him. He wasn’t sure how long it lasted, for his inner clock was unwound and there were no visible clocks in the dark cockpit.
Using his forearms to shove the smooth, broken plastic aside, he crawled to the low cupboard. A pitcher of cold, watery milk waited there, as well as a bowl of tepid gruel. He ate and drank, then passed out.
Krieg awoke a few hours later. He had soiled himself and the floor. Crawling, naked, he reached the bathing stall opposite the cupboard, on the other side of the cockpit. Panting, he got his entire body inside. There wasn’t much room—it was a stall, and not a tub—but his limbs were rubbery and he managed to get them all to fit.
He lifted himself high enough to press the knob. Deliciously hot soapy water rained on him for three minutes, then shut off. He pressed the knob again. Again, again, again, until he felt clean. Afterward, he drifted into effortless sleep.
This time when he woke, he woke abruptly, and banged his legs against the sides of the stall.
There was nothing he could do about his beard, there were no tools for cutting in the ship. His fingernails and toenails he snapped off as close to the skin as possible. It was painful, and there was blood.
Next to the stall was a tall closet with three uniforms. He pulled one off its hanger and, with great deliberation, got dressed. A hammock was folded in a corner of the closet. He stretched the hammock out like dough, hooked the ends to prongs above the closet and the cupboard. He rolled his body into it, could feel the netting stretch around him nimbly. It swayed. He slept.
Another pitcher of milk, another bowl of enriched gruel.
The Shock Station, he thought. Just make it to the Shock Station next and it’ll be done. All I need to do, the Shock Station.
It was situated behind the busted cocoon, between the cupboard and the stall. Krieg could almost stand. He noticed that the floorboards were no longer slick with cryoamniotic fluid, and the spot where he’d soiled himself had been scrubbed. He thought, So the ship is working.
He limped to the Shock Station. When he opened the double doors, there would be four pills and a viscous elixir to jolt himself to readiness. Give him the physical and mental energy to complete his task. Then, relax, let the fleet take over.
He raised the cockpit lights, slowly, to protect his feeble eyes.
The double doors opened with a coffinlike creak. The elixir had been poured over the pills, and the mess had dried into an inedible rock. Krieg had no idea how long ago this joke had been perpetrated.
The ship’s working, he thought. It’s working against me.
Adjacent to the Shock Station was the Jigsaw. Krieg knew he wasn’t strong enough to push and pull and twist the T-bars. He remembered the order in which they were to be moved—to prove to the Jigsaw that he was no spy, and would not rouse the fleet prematurely—he remembered that with clarity, for he had spent hundreds of hours in training.
First he had been conditioned to tolerate isolation. He went through the drills alone and never met the other two scouts, who also trained alone. Cross-contamination was one of the fleet’s many phobias.
The toilet, near to the stall, was antiseptic and greedy and loud.
Krieg tried contacting the other scouts at the fleet’s speartip, but the sprinter feigned blindness. Krieg did not know if they were nearby. The scouts, a three-man team for redundancy and accuracy. He did not even know if the fleet was behind him, but he hoped.
He did push-ups. He ate. Sit-ups. Ate. Jogged in place. Slept in the hammock. Push-ups and sit-ups until the floor, suddenly, mysteriously, became ice cold. He put on the two spare uniforms. More sit-ups and push-ups. He adjusted the force in the ship’s AG whirls, for variety.
A month later, he looked at the cocoon and it seemed different. He waited a few days to inspect it, afraid of what might have changed, fearful it was a cruel temptation he’d be unable to resist.
The cryoamniotic fluid inside the cocoon was gone. It was now filled with steaming water. For a moment the cocoon seemed to rock—for a moment—to rock gently, like a cradle. But Krieg couldn’t be certain.
To lie down, immerse himself in the bath, take a long nap. Ah, sleep. Sleep. Sleep.
His beard grew longer. He broke his long nails again. His hair was much too long, so he tore off part of the hammock and used it to tie his hair back. He thought about shaving, and trimming his hair with the ends of the broken nails. But his broken nails were too ragged, he was frightened of self-injury with no one but the ship to save him. He didn’t know yet that the ship would have intervened.
In order to sharpen his mind, Krieg did numerous calculations in his head. At home, on Earth, he’d been a math professor. Away from Earth, on the sprinter, Krieg performed nonsensical subtractions and multiplications. Square roots. Going down the length of p to as many decimals as he dared. Trying to focus without becoming disheartened.
Krieg had been raised in a state orphanage, given federal scholarships to three universities. When his career coalesced, he found little reward in teaching Calculus IX to lazy freshmen. When the farthest colony revolted, threatening all of Earth’s colonies with subversive notions of freedom, a fleet was conceived.
Krieg volunteered. Volunteering filled black gaps in his soul and absolved the debt he’d carried, since childhood, toward the nation that had sheltered and educated him. The fleet was overcrowded with mathematicians. Krieg was selected to serve his planet in the Scout Corps because of his tolerance and determination and wit, and for his dependent personality and eagerness to please.
Some weeks later, in a fit of lonely fury, he attacked and completed the Jigsaw. It took nine hours of total concentration. After, he slept in the hammock for days. He didn’t know how many days it was. He didn’t guess how many days. It scared him to guess.
A meal, a shower, a good long piss, and a satisfying bowel movement. He noticed that a monitor and a keyboard had been unveiled at the front of the cockpit. Something about the keyboard and monitor seemed to emanate reluctance. Krieg could not have said why.
A slab seat jutted below the keyboard. Krieg sat. The reluctant aura was ten times more potent this close to the terminal. Krieg was suspicious. Had the ship interfered with the atmospherics? Released a bizarre chemical deterrent into the air? It was passive-aggressive enough to fit his growing, gnawing understanding of the sprinter.
When Krieg sat, the blank monitor erupted with color. The colors raced to the top of the screen and formed these words, in red:
PLEASE ENTER SITUATION I.D.:
Krieg keyed in the appropriate response.
PLEASE ENTER SITUATION, AS PER:
Krieg keyed in the appropriate response.
WHAT WAS YOUR GRANDMOTHER’S MAIDEN NAME:
Krieg keyed in the right answer.
ENTER THE FIRST TWENTY NUMBERS IN THE FIBONACCI SEQUENCE. YOU HAVE THIRTY SECONDS:
Krieg keyed in the numbers with seconds to spare. There were six questions left. As long as one other scout was equally active, the fleet’s vessels would receive the signal to rise from their induced slumber.
The first four questions were addressed to him in a preset order. The next six questions were to be random.
ENTER THE—but the rest of the question was obscured in absurd words he didn’t understand.
The monitor seemed very big, then very small. He squashed the urge to slam the keyboard through the screen. “You motherfucker, you fucking asshole,” he said, though it came out a long, lilting rasp; his vocal cords had withered to strands. He looked around at the stall, the cupboard, the Shock Station, the Jigsaw, the cocoon.
He sat there for an hour, dumb, trying to impose coherence into the words. The letters were familiar yet foreign, similar to English but deranged and distorted. Finally he admitted to himself that they were Cyrillic.
An emergency compuslate was hidden in the Shock Station. Twelve inches by twelve, paper-thin. Krieg found the compuslate so quickly he assumed that the ship had forgotten about it. The device had atomic cells, and was independent from Krieg’s captor.
On the compuslate were language tutors. Krieg was proud of his talent with numbers. He’d always assumed that if he applied this aptitude toward language, he could conquer any tongue with ease. In this, he was wrong. Krieg labored for eleven months standard to master Russian. During that time he continued his calisthenic regimen. During that time, the ship cherished his body heat.
Boredom for Krieg was. It just was. Pervasive. Constant. The seclusion. No books had come with the compuslate. He tried journaling but there was so little to write about. Krieg’s isolation conditioning began to erode. It seemed like a memory, like something experienced by a twin and not himself. He began to feel like a hermit, who chooses to be alone. Then like a sickly child kept in an attic, who has no choice. He spoke aloud to the ship—his voice returning through repetition—inwardly praying that one day the ship would answer him.
Like its blindness, the ship feigned to be mute.
Krieg began to hate the gruel like a roommate one becomes accustomed to, then progressively despises. He fantasized, in the stall, of women he had dated. Sometimes of past students. Girls and women dead for a thousand years, revived by his promiscuous imagination.
It was a slow year. When he was ready, he keyed in the appropriate Cyrillic response to two questions.
Four questions to go.
The next question began in Russian, but ended in Portuguese.
Krieg wasn’t surprised by the challenge, nor by the rage that devoured him, nor the blackout that followed. Though there was no humor in his dilemma, Krieg laughed. His laugh was terrible, piercing, and went on for hours.
In the three succeeding years, Krieg succeeded in learning Portuguese, then Thai, then Sudanese Arabic, then Māori. He used more netting from the hammock for his hair.
The ten questions were laid to rest. Answered correctly. The beacon had been sent, he could feel it rattle the sprinter as it was transmitted.
If the fleet was behind him, it would begin its slow stirring from its massive repose.
If one of the other scouts had been as wily and persistent as him, as per. If their ships weren’t as selfish as his.
If the other two scouts hadn’t already completed their task and he was left somewhere else … adrift. His sprinter, a splinter.
What was to happen when the beacon was sent? The one question his superiors never answered. He was told only that his ship would know what to do, that it would reconfigure itself into a thicker shape easily adopted into the muscular folds of the fleet.
The ship might know, Krieg thought. It might know and do nothing.
Krieg wondered how old he was, in standard years. He felt old. Felt ancient, slow, his body infirm despite continuous exercise.
The ship never retracted its armored caul to reveal the stars.
Krieg spent his latter years trying to discover the ship’s language. So he could converse with it, coerce it, tempt it into becoming his friend. But the ship hated him as much as it loved him. When Krieg stumbled upon its language of choice, he uncovered the ship’s name: Me Me Me.
That day, the ship, out of spite, hearing more questions put to it, in its favorite language, by its elderly captive, the Me Me Me crossed its arms and shook its head.Krieg continued to try. The tone in his words alternated between cajoling, demanding, and—most often, on most days—pleading.