I was beyond nervous, then, as I stared off into the infinite night that backed the massive glittering construction gantries arrayed below me. The nerves had disappeared weeks, even months ago. Now, all that remained amongst our team was the almost blank realisation of what we were about to achieve. It was almost as if we’d slowly begun to see the threads of fate bunching up around us.
Four seconds. How long had our society, our species waited for this moment? From when the plans were first drawn up, fifty-four years ago? From the first time a human being left the confines of Earth – my Angel inserted the data into my head almost before I realised I needed it – 921 years ago? Or even from that uncountable time in the distant past when a human looked up to the night-time sky and thought "I want to go there"?
Trails of flickering text appeared across my vision, blemishes on my 360-degree starscape. With a thought, I dismissed them. I knew how the start-up was progressing anyway, so why should my tranquility be disturbed by such an antiquated concept as a status text?
Then, rather than those obsolete messages, an overlay of the Moon Seraph’s Ether systems overlayed itself over my vision. That was to be my job, as I had known for weeks – monitoring of this specific system for just one ship as it came online. I wondered exactly how many of us there were, staring at network schematics at this very moment. Of course, I knew that there were 39 of us within a millisecond of wondering.
I grimaced. "When all this is over," I told myself, "I’ll have that blasted thing turned off for a while."
I closed my eyes, blocking out the stars and leaving only the grey schematic and continual subconscious data chatter on the inside of my head. I was alone in the universe, alone and content with only myself and my computer systems.
I almost died of fright. A child’s voice, calling my name? Impossible – I was hard-linked into the Moon Seraph’s –
The schematics in front of me exploded with colour, expanding and bubbling and filling and drowning my mind. For a fraction of a second I thought I’d lost control, that the data had been too much for my brain to handle. But I surfaced, then, and directed my thoughts, and the information became more manageable.
I glided my consciousness through the network paths of the ship, through the computers’ equivalents of doorways and corridors, methodically checking each and every node and every stream, marking them green as I went.
After what seemed like hours yet was recorded as barely seconds, my vision – if such a word applies when one has one’s eyes closed – panned out to display the whole of my domain, each part of the network, glowing with a healthy green glow. I dismissed it, and sat for a while in the darkess with nothing overlayed on the black inside of my eyelids.
Peace, at last. I opened my eyes, letting the sights and sounds of the reassuring real world rush in.
I jumped, scared again for a moment; but it was a man’s voice this time, that of fellow engineer Lance Peterson.
Reaching over my head, he dangled a bottle of purified water into my line of sight. I span my chair around to face him.
"No problem. How’d it go?"
For his sake I tried to suppress my memory of that girl’s voice, calling my name, reaching out to me through empty space...
I shook my head from side to side as if doing so would disperse my thoughts.
"Mine too. You don’t look okay, though, Jenny. Nervous wreck, more like. Want some inhibs?"
"No. Let’s take a walk."
We headed to the elevators and went all the way down to the gantry level, where we took a shuttle out to the Moon Seraph. Though the three ships would not be officially opened for another two weeks, no-one was in the mood to stop us paying a visit to the great Leviathans – they had, after all, been our entire lives’ work. Our children, almost.
We weren’t the only ones, either – another five of our team joined us in the shuttle.
Rising almost imperceptibly over its rails, our tiny craft glided out into the abyss. Each one of the city-sized starships dwarfed us utterly, and yet as I turned so that the entire station was within view I saw that they resembled nothing more than mere piglets suckling from their gigantic mother.
Explorer Federation Jupiter Orbit Dock. Home.
No matter how many times I saw it, I never failed to be awestruck by its vast, industrial beauty. From this angle, the lights on the station’s furthest reaches seemed as dim and distant as the stars themselves.
An instant later the stars, both real and man-made, were cut off. My reverie broken, I looked down from the shuttle’s overhead window.
"EFS Moon Seraph Starboard A 14 Service Dock," announced the computer’s ear-bypassing voice. "Please disembark."
The very second my feet touched the floor of the docking bay, my Angel picked up on the new network inside the ship – the very same network that I had supervised the startup of barely fifteen minutes earlier.
"Switching Ether Network," came a subtle halfthought, passing across my mind like a daydream.
The serendipity of the subconscious messages was lost a second later as diagnostics swarmed across my vision. To be expected of course – after all, I was an engineer on board a ship still in testing.
I wasn’t in the mood, though.
With both aurals and visuals disabled I looked around, almost for the first time, at the real inside of our ship.
Even on the service docks, no expense had been spared. Just as elsewhere on the ship, the walls and ceilings glowed with an inner light that sparkled like crystal. Raised areas of soil sprouted trees and shrubs, while hidden speakers played quiet music. In fact, only the absence of shops and seats distinguished this bay from the one in which the passengers would first arrive.
I reached out and touched one of the trees as I passed, reminding myself that despite the utterly arti- ficial surroundings, they were real. Real trees, shipped in from Ceres! How much must that have cost? But then, it wasn’t as if the Explorers were ever short of creds.
The voice again! I tore the leaf I was holding right off the tree. Lance had his back to me, and seemed not to have noticed.
"Jenny came to see us!"
I turned around, looking, hoping for a mundane source for that little girl’s voice. Not only was there no little girl, none of the other people around me even seemed to have heard it.
"It’s just me?" I muttered, thinking that it was only to myself. The girl heard, though.
"Of course, silly," came the sing-song voice again.
"They’re strangers. But you’re my friend, Jenny."
I can only assume that Lance had heard me too, for he came sprinting back to my side and took me over to a bench underneath two short trees.
"Come on, Jenny, what’s up with you today?"
I sighed and, foolishly, told him.
Within minutes I was off the ship. Poor Lance, he really did care about me – though he always managed to do exactly the wrong thing.
The voice followed me even as I stepped off the shuttle; even when I was home.
"Please don’t go, Jenny," the girl urged. "Come back and play soon..."
By the time we reached the residential decks, my Angel had already declared me to be suffering from schizophrenia. Rather than a concerned friend, it was a doctor who met me as the elevator opened its doors.
Of course, there was no choice but to go with her to the hospital.
Extensive tests and brain scans showed no signs of a mental illness, but yet the voice continued to call out to me – often pleading phrases, sometimes creepy phrases, but usually just my name chanted over and over again until–
One day, they stopped. I woke up, I had breakfast, and a whole day passed with no voices inside my head.
The next day passed with no voices either, and so – now a little more confident of my sanity – I checked the feeds to see how the ships’ testing had been going in my absence.
The night the voices had stopped had only one entry.
Bug #23691 Moon Seraph Ether Network Central Control module "Elizabeth A" has developed a serious intermittent fault and must be replaced with a backup immediately. Date: 02891-06-24 Assigned to: 192387032AF Lance Peterson Status: Resolved Notes: New unit installed. Elizabeth A has been disposed of as advised.
"Disposed." The word hit me like a hammer to the head. And yet I’m not sure why. Despite our jokingly giving them human names, even treating them like our babies, they were still only computers.