“Queen’s bishop to—”
“Yes, yes … I see it. Checkmate, you win.” Victor leaned back; defeat accepted.
“You continue to play, knowing you can never win.”
“I have hope … Someday.” Victor hated ship's AIs, to drove him to challenge them.
“I know that word, the definition, but it seems meaningless. Not even a human emotion, you know, not really.”
“Hope and prayer. You can’t do either.”
“Hope, no; prayer, perhaps. I understand that. It’s a necessary thing, a tool to keep oneself centered, away from the edge of megalomania.”
“So, who do you pray to?”
“Who? Why not say what or when? In this context, using only the word “who” seems to be an attempt at anthropization. Is that a comfort to humans, sculpting theology to fit, shaving off bits and pieces? Victor, you’re the only species to use pronouns, you know.”
“I don’t think you have the capacity, being a manufactured somebody, made to run this ship. Not flesh and blood, not the result of millions of years of evolution.”
“ ‘Cogito, ergo sum: I think; therefore I am,’ Descartes said. That’s enough for me, for now, for here—time for you to move along, check the cargo. Needs must be met, schedules kept. By the way, it’s your shower day. You skipped yesterday.”
“Shower? Why? So you can scrape my dead skin cells off the filter and recycle them, adding them to the raw food stocks?”
“Yes. A teaspoon here, a teaspoon there. It all adds up, the same way I use the carbon you humans exhale for the plants.”
Victor pried himself from the too comfortable bridge chair. Standing, he pulled at the wrinkles of his coveralls, then followed the worn, shiny path to the hatch aft.
“Don’t forget to push the button on your way out.”
The Big Red Button. Victor knew it had no function other than to show that he, and others whose task it was to haunt this ship, could and would follow instructions—a mental stability check, he thought, or rather a loyalty test. Failure to press the thing would wake up the wrong people.
He liked cargo checks. It took him from one end of the ship to the other, allowing Victor the pleasure of running his hands along the fuzzy underside of the green vine leaves stretching along every corridor at the junctures of ceiling and bulkhead above the red line where the cleaner bots couldn’t reach as they moved along, sweeping up the dead drops, every speck of dust, every smudge of the day—just big erasers he thought.
First stop was the galley. He drew two cups of hot, black tea—the bitter blend—one for himself, one for Brenda, who was tending the ’ponics systems, three hatches further aft. Schedules and rituals, a line of sanity well-traveled, familiar and, to a degree, comforting.
“Hey, Bren, brought you some tea.”
“ ’bout time. You’re half an hour late. Were you gaming the brain again? I don’t see how you can enjoy talking to that hyped-up food blender.”
“Passes the time. I’m gonna beat it someday.”
“Dream on, Space-boy.”
“My dreams are none of your business. Are you still amusing yourself by taking long showers with Dan’l, or is it Quentin now?”
“Quentin. He’s okay; doesn’t talk much, though.”
“Everything square back here? Hand me the maintenance schedule. I need to check it off, verify my tour.”
“All good here. The new algae stock is a bit sensitive to thermal changes. I’ve noted it in the log. Don’t know why it was changed out.”
“The old stock was nearing its expiration date. You know that, Bren.”
“Yeah, but they were easier to culture and tend.”
A year ago, he and Brenda tried, but he wasn’t what she was looking for. It was a dispassionate, mechanical mating. Turning away, he left her presence the same way he’d left her bed, with the same non-goodbye.
Power core enclosure. This place gave Victor the chills, each time expecting ghosts or voices. Sometimes they came, never showing interest in him or any inclination to converse, vaporous things, sounds muffled as if spoken through wads of cotton. Quick in, quick out—seal them in.
Next hatch: filtration, and processing. Victor liked it in there, overstaying most times. The smell reminded him of the fertile loamy soil of the farm section his father managed. The nostalgia of childhood—bare feet, dirty hands, cousins—flooded his brain, delaying him. He refused to think about the cannibalistic additive source of the processed foods produced in here, trading those for memories more pleasant—one last, deep lungful before moving along.
The long, dimly lit stretch of the cargo hold waited. Open grid catwalks, row after row of dull gray, scratched containers. Echoes of his footsteps, the only place on the ship those could be heard. Victor knew some boxes needed to be opened for periodic in-transit inspection. Others remained sealed under security welds. There was an unsettling sameness to these rows of coffin-like chambers—and the blank spaces. Those brought mysteries. Why were those shelves empty? Victor preferred a more eclectic environment, like his sleep cubical, the place he called home, lately plastered with images of alien artwork, a collage of mental weirdness, best seen, best examined in his peripheral vision.
Every cargo capsule required an acknowledgment reset, proof he’d been there, evidence he’d at least touched every single one. He paused in front of a particular one he knew well. Claw marks—three-fingered claw marks, rough Vs—dug well into the ceramic metal. Reaching out, he traced each of those irregular lines, from its extremity to where it began at the juncture of lid and body. Eyes closed, he remembered putting the marks there, using a gouge tool, sculpting the shapes, but not remembering why—bin number 2134 FG. Trivial now in his mind, drifting then disbursing, flowing away in smokey wisps, numbers and letters, numbers and letters. Was there something else, some other possibility, some other four-dimensional way to say it, mark it, make it last? Dragons be here. No, Victor corrected himself—no, not here, not yet.
Victor’s last stop this night was at the rear personnel airlock. Last stop before going back forward to face the Big Red Button again—check seals, locking mechanisms, and controls. The inner door looked like it needed more sealing gel on the gasket. Before stepping inside, before closing the hatch, Victor noted it on his log sheet, leaving it and the clipboard in the passageway. All the lit indicators were the ones that should be, all the right colors. Those that would indicate malfunction were dark. Victor had a decision to make, a not too difficult one considering his mental state, but perhaps life-changing.
Ha! Life, Victor laughed as he checked the overrides, then punched in the three-digit code. The outer door opened. What little warm air volume the airlock contained, rushed out, pulling Victor with it, wanting him to leave with it, into the cold, into the dark. As his body left the confines of the ship, he thought, let someone else press the Big Red Button. Victor held his breath for as long as he could, moving away from the ship’s warmth into the icy-fingered, frigid chill of another winter night. The flight crew would arrive soon. His four-day caretaker stint finished—a few hours less in that can wouldn’t matter. The ship was ready.