Liam Hogan’s “The Backup”
Liam Hogan is an award-winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction and in Best of British Fantasy (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London. More details at: http://
Without further ado, and with both great pleasure and honor, we present you his story:
The AI aboard the Thomas Pynchon was the most sophisticated computer brain ever built. Designed to cope with pretty much anything and everything that might conceivably happen during our five-century long interstellar voyage, it still had a backup for that one-in-a-billion scenario it couldn’t deal with.
My in-reserve, I’m probably not going to be able to help status came at an unenviable cost: the not-quite-so-deep sleep I was in meant I’d arrive at Psi-Praxis Major approximately twenty years older than I was when we left earth, as opposed to only two, like the rest of the nine-hundred and ninety-nine colonists.
Which is why it was I, Cornelius Archibald Lucent, an unremarkable second-grade engineer with no specialist knowledge and no direct reports, who got the “quick defrost” berth and not someone older and higher up. Second engineers liked to suggest that first-graders had long since stopped being engineers at all and had become merely people-managers instead, which might or might not have been the truth. What was certain was that I was the youngest engineer with good all-round ship system knowledge and decent problem solving skills, who had also happened to draw the unwanted short straw.
But still, I never actually expected to get woken.
A quick defrost is a brutal thing, leaving you both chilled to the bone and with a bad case of sunburn. Plus, obviously, brain freeze. Shivering as I gingerly eased on my uniform, I quizzed Ziggy for the details of the emergency.
“Collision avoidance measures were ineffective,” Ziggy reported.
I froze, one arm in and one out. This was well above my pay grade. “Where did we get hit?” I asked, voice tremulous, fearing the worst, amazed life support was still operating.
“The foreign object is currently docked at airlock three-F,” Ziggy said, with what sounded vaguely like an air of peevish annoyance.
“We have a visitor.”
Stood inside airlock three-F I checked the conditions the other side of the door. Whatever, or whoever it was, the atmosphere was earth-normal. This was insane. I’d checked our flight path and we weren’t far off the midpoint of our journey, which meant we weren’t far off the maximum speed the mighty engines of the Thomas Pynchon could push us to, almost a quarter light-speed.
Somehow, something had caught up with us, matched our velocity, and then docked. At more than seventy thousand kilometres per second.
Insane didn’t do it justice.
Taking a deep breath I keyed in the sequence to open the external portal. The door slid open and a slender youth in a yellow baseball cap emblazoned with the letters I.D.S. looked up from a steaming cup; my first smell of coffee in over two hundred years.
“Oh,” she said, and it took that oh and a subtle shift in her position before I realised it wasn’t a slender youth at all, but a slender woman, in a somewhat androgynous and unflattering beige outfit, the cap masking her hair and features. “Oh. So you are in, after all.”
“Huh?” I replied, intelligently.
“Quirky AI you’ve got there,” she commented, removing the cap to scratch a bare scalp covered in swirling brushed silver tattoos that twinkled with their own pearlescent light, elegant waves that brought waterfalls and symphony orchestras to mind. “Didn’t want to communicate at all. Wasn’t until I plugged in to the external port it would even acknowledge my existence. And then it was all snarky attitude. And what sort of a name is Ziggy? I tried to explain I needed a human to sign, but I wasn’t sure it understood. Guess I got through in the end. Though, I wouldn’t have stuck round this long if I wasn’t on my break. Anyway. Delivery.” She hopped off the crate she was sat on, flicking out her wrist to conjure a transparent tablet and stylus out of thin air. “Sign here.”
“Delivery?” I echoed, my neurons still not firing, or leastways not in any way that actually helped. “For me?”
She angled the tablet back, re-read the form upside down. “Well, no, but you don’t mind taking it in until the owner can pick it up, do you?”
I wasn’t sure. Did I mind? Did I have a mind? I looked at the slender box she was carrying; it was about the length of a T-19b standard issue socket wrench. “What is it?”
She shrugged. “Dunno, I’m just the delivery gal.”
She looked amused, though I can’t have been making a better impression than a drunken parrot would. “Gal, you know? Gal, Mal, Tal, Yal, yadda, yadda. You’re a Mal, right?”
I shook my head, not sure what I was any more. “Who’s it for?”
“Hmm, it just says the Anther.”
“And… where are they?” Or should I have asked what?
“Oh, about a half light year hubward.”
She nodded, pointing the way, and I found myself staring in that direction though all I could see was stacks and stacks of different sized parcels.
“Then why deliver it here?”
She shrugged. “Like I said. I’m on my break. You were closer. I’ll send them a quick text and someone will come pick it up.”
I nodded, sagely. Used the stylus to scrawl something unique. And then I shook my head, crowding constellations of stars to the peripheries of my vision. “But a text will take half a year to get there?”
“Not a text text, silly. A hyper-text.”
My jaw hit the deck. “FTL communication?”
“Of course! Say, am I on cam? Did someone at the depot put you up to this? Some sort of a hoax? Because it’s almost like you’re pretending to be one of the original colony ships, right down to the funky old-skool name, the Thomas Pynchon.”
I stared at her, speechless. She quirked a hairless eyebrow, waiting for my response. “Um. We are the original Thomas Pynchon?”
She laughed. “Oh! Well no wonder your ship didn’t respond! So, what, no hyper-link at all then?” she asked, all agog.
“None,” I agreed, feeling undeniably disappointed not to have something I didn’t know existed less than half an hour earlier.
“Not even a hyper-shuttle?” Her eyes went bright and wide.
I groaned. The future didn’t just have faster-than-light communications. No wonder she’d been able to catch up and dock. As far as her warp-speed delivery shuttle was concerned, we were probably just about standing still.
“No, we don’t. But hold on a minute. If you have near-instantaneous travel across multiple light-years, then why are people living aboard spaceships? Why hasn’t the um, Anther? reached its destination yet?”
“Ah. Well, none of the planets are inhabitable, are they?”
“They aren’t? The earth is…?”
No great surprise there. That was why the Thomas Pynchon and its sister ships had been built in the first place, humanity’s last best hope fired off towards each and every promising exoplanet so far discovered.
“What about Psi-Praxis Major?”
She screwed one eye shut. “If I remember my history lessons right, hyper-travel was developed about a decade after the first colony ships launched, so obviously what with FTL and your oh-so-slow engines, well, other colonists got there first, didn’t they?”
“And? What happened?”
“You know how earth ecologists were always worried about invasive species?”
“Turns out the worst of them all is homosapiens.”
I groaned again, imagining an eco-disaster played out over two hundred and forty-ish years. Not a pretty thought experiment.
“Lots of ships in orbit, though,” she mused. “Regular little boho community. Bit too alternative for my liking and some of the packages I have to deliver… Tweaks my biops! Guess it’ll still be there when you arrive to check it out for yourselves.”
With difficulty I navigated myself back to the here and now. “So, how do we get hold of one of those hyper-link devices?”
“Oh, that’s easy! I can order one for you. Assuming you have the necessary galactic credits?”
I shook my head. The swirling stars refused to settle and I wasn’t sure if I needed a sick-bucket or a chair to collapse onto.
She pursed her blue-gray lips. “Hmm, no problems. You’re a colony ship, right? You must have holds stuffed full of ancient seed stocks and antique tech, all the sort of tat collectors will go wild for. You’re probably sitting on a tritium mine here! You just need to sell some of it, yeah?”
“And how exactly do I do that, without a hyper-link?”
“Ah… good one, Mal! All a bit proton and neutron, isn’t it?”
“Proton and neutron?”
“You know–which came first, the proton or the neutron?”
“Ah, but then where did the first proton come from?”
I gave her a blank look.
She shrugged. “Look, I might be able to order you a basic hyper-linker gratis, on one condition.”
“Yeah, you, and by you I mean the Thomas Pynchon, have to sign a deal that says you won’t use any other delivery companies and by doing so you become a loyal IDS customer, you see?”
I guess I did and found I didn’t mind at all. Quite the reverse. For all her strange ways, including the distinct lack of hair, she was kind of cute. And I hadn’t, I reminded myself, had a girlfriend in well over two centuries.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
She glanced at me, suspicious. “Not intending to file a complaint, are you?”
“No, no, of course not! Just, you know, being friendly. I’m Cornelius.”
“Well… I shouldn’t. It’s strictly against policy to fraternise with customers. Unless you wanted to log a good-service report?”
“I could do that,” I agreed.
“Vron,” she said, doffing her cap once more with a glorious smile. Tiny sparkling lights flowered into a stunningly beautiful pattern atop her shaven skull and then were gone leaving me aching for more.
I signed her tablet again with roughly the same indecipherable scribble and she tapped the peak of her bright yellow cap with a long finger. “Be seeing ya, Corn-el-ius,” she sang, as the docking bay door slid shut and away she and her delivery shuttle went.
Twelve hours later my mind was still buzzing. If we weren’t, after all, destined to form a colony, then everything I’d thought had been decided long ago was up for grabs. Destination, purpose, mission parameters–all of it could and probably would have to change. What was the point in the Pynchon doing a mid-flight one-eighty to commence deceleration, if there was nothing at our destination we couldn’t get just as easily en-route?
But if I could line up the relevant pieces before waking everyone else–the hyper-link, a second-hand FTL shuttle, maybe even a personality upgrade for Ziggy–then what an instant hero I’d be!
Best of all, I wouldn’t have to waste another ten years of my life in semi-suspended animation. As I stared into a washroom mirror, trying to reacquaint myself with my face, wondering what age bracket Vron dated in, I figured that might be the biggest win of all.
A shuttle from the Anther turned up while I was wandering the empty corridors of the giant colony ship, imagining them full and bustling with life. So I was in a pretty good mood as I jogged down to deliver their parcel.
“Huh,” the stony-faced woman said, glancing at the label. “Bloody IDS. They keep on doing this, making me hop to every ramshackle slow-poke ship in the quadrant. No offence.”
“Um, none taken.”
“I mean, you guys don’t even have a hyper-link. Makes docking pretty bloody hairy. Had to hope you weren’t going to do anything weird on me, like jump another hundred light-years distant.”
“No danger of that,” I said.
“Though if I’d known you didn’t have a working link, I could have brought you a spare?”
I waved away the more than generous offer. “It’s alright,” I said. “Got one on order.”
“Well, good. Can’t have dirty great big spaceships like yours lurking out here unable to communicate their damned position. That’d be downright dangerous.”
“I suppose it would. Fancy a cuppa?”
She narrowed her eyes. “You’re not one of those cult ships are you?”
“No… At least, I don’t think so.”
“Well, doesn’t matter anyway. Things to do, places to be. Thanks,” she said, tucking the parcel under her arm, but it was the sort of thanks that might as well have a “for nothing” tacked after it. I waved her a half-hearted farewell.
I wasn’t sure when our hyperlink would turn up–Vron hadn’t given me a delivery estimate–but however long it took there didn’t seem any point in refreezing myself. I’d only just warmed up again. I got Ziggy to assign me a few maintenance tasks near airlock three-F to keep me busy. Ziggy grumbled that I was lowering the efficiency metrics, but that was probably because I was day-dreaming about what I’d sell, and what I’d order first. I had no real idea what was out there. Two centuries of progress and boxed sets to catch up on. I couldn’t even begin to imagine!
Though trying to imagine got boring pretty quick and, after an epically mundane week, I was beginning to worry the delivery would never arrive.
Then, as I swapped out a couple of underperforming water purifiers, Ziggy announced there was a delivery shuttle-sized object approaching–on the other side of the Thomas Pynchon. I cursed. We had over a dozen airlocks but somehow I’d imagined Vron would automatically return to the same one.
I haired my way across to airlock one-B, ignoring health and safety warnings and hoping I wouldn’t arrive in too dishevelled a state. But it didn’t matter. By the time I arrived the airlock light was blinking red.
Nothing out there but cold, hard, very unfriendly vacuum.
Cold hard vacuum, and a failed delivery note.
“Sorry we missed you,” it announced in a cheerily artificial voice when I tapped play. “Your package has been returned to the nearest depot. Please get in touch to arrange a more convenient delivery time, or drop by… Lalande Seven… to pick up the parcel in person in the next two weeks. (Please bring three types of ID including full DNA profile). Signed, Harolson two-nine-eight Tomalason, Interstellar Delivery Service.”
“Damn,” I said, to no-one at all. “Different delivery driver.” I should have figured there would be more than one of them out there. I stared vacantly through a nearby porthole into the vast lonely emptiness of space for a long minute, weighing options I didn’t have. My sigh could have been heard at the other end of the ship.
“Ziggy–prep my deep freeze berth. I’m going back to sleep. And please don’t bother waking me unless the Thomas Pynchon is on fire or something.”
And you know what? I never expected to get woken that second time, either.