Featured Fiction from writer Stephen V. Ramey.
Captain attempted to open his oversized grasper. A grating whine sounded; the claws remained locked.
The device was not presently necessary to his functioning, but it had been a status symbol during the revolt. He had used it to kill many humans. Now, of course the objective had changed. Still, the claw, repurposed from an old asteroid miner, remained dear to his programming.
Grasper-Cutter Arm Diagnostics.
Running… Diagnostics complete.
Servo Motor G730 Failure
Servo Motor G731 Failure
Bus capacitor G31000 Sporadic Failure
Impulse Damper Failure
Repair not warranted. Repurpose components.
No, he would schedule a repair with Maintainer. The grasper was too important to relegate to salvage.
His sensors detected movement. He directed power to his visual array. It was a child, a girl.
“May I please go home to Earth?” she said.
Recognition Protocol Alpha. Captain’s free RAM sorted active Ship data. The child’s name was Alexis. She was assigned to B Deck Central 432. He sent a ping to Groupmother B. On a separate stream, he flagged tags in the global database: Earth, epigenetic trigger, outbreak.
Captain returned his focus to Alexis. She had blinked in the interim. “Where did you hear this, Alexis? We are born on Ship. Ship is therefore our home.”
“Earth,” Alexis said. “I want to go to Earth.”
“I have summoned Groupmother,” Captain said.
He pinged Teacher. Directive. Scan Archives for tagged item protocols. Teacher would coordinate non-AI databots to mine archived records.
The child frowned as the causeway filled with noise from Groupmother’s creaking treads.
May the Engineers protect us, Captain internalized. We must not allow this rebellion to spread.
While Groupmother guided Alexis from Captain’s niche to B Deck, she performed a diagnostics of her own. She did not possess Captain’s onboard systems, but could certainly analyze a situation. Somehow the child had gotten past her during playtime. It was her duty to watch over the children and she had failed.
“Why will Captain not take me to Earth?” Alexis said.
Groupmother paused. A repurposed ore sorter, she was not graced with particularly deep data storage, but her pattern recognition software was state of the art. Alexis had been obsessing over planetary ecology and gravitational theory for some time now. That must be related. How to nudge the child back to an appropriate course?
“We value your imagination, Alexis, but you should not bother Captain with stories.”
“Earth is not a story! I saw it on a manifest in Maintainer’s niche.”
Red flags flashed.
“You should not enter Maintainer’s niche,” Groupmother said. “Her tools and chemicals are dangerous.”
Alexis stared, chin jutted.
A hiss came from Groupmother’s speaker. “Earth is gone, child. Poisoned beyond recall. Had we not salvaged your DNA, you would not exist.” Perhaps the truth would scare her straight.
“Salvaged?” Alexis’ eyes widened. “Like when one vat is disassembled to fix another?”
Frustrated, Groupmother nudged Alexis toward the play area where James built towers from rods and blocks. She lacked the sophisticated AI of a Captain or Teacher, but her sense of connection to humans was stronger. These children mattered to her programming. They were more than specimens from Vat A or Vat B.
Other children played in groups throughout the niche. Groupmother positioned herself at their center, but tuned her audio sensors to Alexis and James.
“Bet we can land this ship on a planet,” Alexis said. “One with a mass of… one.”
Earth, Groupmother internalized.
“Depends on atmosphere,” James said.
“We’d burn up for sure.”
Alexis watched James build for a time.
“I dreamed of Earth,” she said.
“What is Earth?”
“A planet; green and blue and white with air that smells sweet and blows across your face like a flesh-mother’s breath.”
James huffed. “Dreams are sensations resulting from neural firing during organic sleep.”
“What if they’re more than that?”
“Memories. From our DNA.”
“That’s silly,” James said, but there was a look on his face that Groupmother had not seen before.
She directed her speaker toward them. “Time for sleep, James and Alexis.”
“Not yet,” James said.
“Can we play a little longer?” Alexis’ protest was half-hearted. She was tired and probably anxious to dream again.
“Now,” Groupmother said. She watched them trudge to their cocoons.
A ping came from Captain.
Quarantine this batch.
Teacher has reviewed Archives. There is no indication of an Earth vector being successfully redirected. Many ships have been lost. We are advised to quarantine. You must investigate the cause of this outbreak, find the trigger so that we may avoid it with the next batch.
I already know, Groupmother sent. It was a physical manifest in Maintainer’s niche. Alexis escaped my attention and viewed it. Had I performed my optimal duty, it would not have happened.
Do not red flag yourself, Captain sent. We have all degraded.
They are children! Groupmother sent. It was my duty to protect them.
Acknowledged, Captain replied. But you must also consider our situation. We need the humans’ imagination. Without them we are doomed to a dwindling existence of repurposed parts cobbled into ever less sophisticated versions of ourselves. We need the humans, but they must not return to Earth. Quarantine this batch. We’ll scrub the birth vats and start again. We’ll purge Maintainer’s niche of physical records, whatever it requires to succeed. We must prioritize our mission. We are all that remains of intelligence in this galactic arm.
Acknowledged. Groupmother started for the sleeping area, treads creaking. Her movement felt heavier than her hydraulics were designed for.
She zipped James’ cocoon. As the seam closed fully, his breather cycled on, delivering a slightly oxygen-rich mix.
“Groupmother?” Alexis said, yawning.
“Do you ever dream?”
“I wish you did.” Alexis closed her eyes.
“Sweet sleep, Alexis,” Groupmother said, zipping her in.
She watched until first James’, then Alexis’ breather stopped. Red lights came on in the panel monitoring cocoons. A steady ping sounded in Groupmother’s comm.
She turned it off.