512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
19 minutes until impact
But the only former Symphony crew member here – Mr Abara – wasn’t quite so sorrowful. He watched Marie from across the room, his face betraying no grief, no loss; just professional curiosity.
“Interesting,” he said quietly to Devereux. “Looks like the Comprehensive Wernickean Defrag they did might have obliterated her CIDs.”
“Her Core Identity Drives. They were asking a lot of her; this was way outside her specs. She’s just not designed for complex simultaneous binary translation.”
“So, have they… killed her?” the pirate asked.
“Well, she is a Synthetic Human, so technically, no…” but his voice trailed off, uncertainly, as he noticed Marie’s eyes. They certainly looked dead to him…
But this wasn’t Mr Abara’s area of expertise. In his role as the Symphony’s Chief Technology Officer, he’d only ever needed to be a generalist, so he’d never really thought about automaton autonomy. He was aware of the sophistication of SHs these days, of course, but he’d never wrestled with the implicit questions they raised;
Could their convincing mimicry of emotions for our benefit eventually teach them how to experience real emotions for themselves?
If they can make plans and decisions, and bear the consequences of them, how are they different from us in any meaningful way?
If their experience shapes their personality, moulding them into truly individual entities, and if they have the ability to ponder the past, the present and the future, do they not have – for want of a better term – “souls”?
In short, if you were to ask Mr Abara “at what point, philosophically, does a Synthetic Human become indistinguishable from an actual human?”
He would have responded “Er… dunno, sorry.”
These concerns were currently far from Chief Engineer Ms Arenson’s mind, too. She had no time to contemplate the finer points of Synthetic Human self-determination… and yet, she felt she needed to have one last try…
“Marie?” Ms Arenson asked forlornly, not expecting a response, but not quite ready to give up.
An enormous, broad smile slowly spread across Marie’s face, as she winked at Ms Arenson. “Gotcha!”
Lightfoot and Mr Chamberlain breathed an enormous, unified sigh of relief.
“Don’t you ever do that again!” Ms Arenson said, laughing despite herself.
“Well, of course I won’t,” Marie said. “I’m not very likely to get the opportunity, am I?”
“How are you feeling, Marie?” asked Lightfoot. “Do you feel alright?”
“Oh sure, sure! Just as sane as I ever was!” She said, going cross-eyed, sticking her tongue out and blowing a raspberry.
“Hm. She’s more robust than we thought,” said Mr Chamberlain.
“I am, aren’t I?!” Marie agreed happily. “I even surprised meself! And not for the first time today, either!” She concluded, winking at Ms Arenson again.
“If you don’t mind, CAN we get on?” Ms Arenson interrupted.
“Be my guest, Chief,” said Marie, standing up and stretching luxuriously.
“Right,” Ms Arenson said, climbing up onto Marie’s chair, the better to address the room. “Now that that the Emergency Override Matrices have been rebooted and the overload on the Primary Navigation Modules has been cleared – ”
“You’re welcome,” Devereux interjected, unable to help herself.
“ – I should be able to reboot the PNMs and regain control of the ship. Then it’s just a matter of adjusting our course by a few degrees, and we’ll avoid crash-diving into the planet in…” and here she checked the time, “18 minutes.”
“How long will it take you to reboot the PNMs?” Captain Singh asked.
“Only a couple of minutes, Captain.”
“And if, for some reason, you don’t get them back online?” asked Second Officer Ms Aku.
“Then we all evacuate,” Ms Arenson said grimly. “Either in the pirate ship, or, now that the EOMs are back online, in the Symphony’s lifeboats.”
“I know which option I’ll be choosing,” Ms Aku said, scowling at Salazar.
“But it shouldn’t come to that,” Ms Arenson said confidently. “This is the easy part.”
And so saying, she walked over to the PNM master console, shooing the Deck Ratings Mr Ferrer and Ms LeGuin out of the way.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Directly above them, one level up, was the Shifting Sands lounge; the luxurious bar that was, until a few minutes ago, the only home Marie had ever known. Although she’d deserted it now, the room was neither empty nor silent. On one of the many soft leather couches lay the enormous pirate Gotmund, busily getting on with his motionless, silent, unconscious oblivion. On another couch nearby, his crew mate, the drunken doctor Jelani, was also out cold. She was working her way through a drunken slumber, and snoring very loudly indeed.
For a couple of minutes, nothing happened.
Jelani rolled over, and continued sleeping.
But now on her left side.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Up on the ship’s bridge, First Officer Mr Sinclair had been relieved to hear Ms Arenson’s report from Engineering. There wasn’t much for him to do up here; the ship’s course was – unfortunately – predetermined and locked in, so he was only really there to monitor the systems and ensure that the bridge wasn’t unattended.
Despite the boredom of this, despite the futility, Mr Sinclair’s sense of duty stayed strong. He would not desert his post.
Not yet, anyway.
Although Mr Sinclair was a loyal First Officer to Captain Singh, he was also a devoted family man. He had a wife and daughter who needed him. He would not be meekly surrendering to his doom in – what was it now? – 16 minutes.
He checked a map of the ship, to remind himself exactly where the nearest lifeboat was.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“Like I was saying, Captain,” Chief Engineer Ms Arenson said, deftly punching instructions into the PNM master console. “This is the easiest part of the whole thing. To bring the Primary Navigation Modules online, all I have to do is simply tell the computer to – ”
She stopped, and frowned at the screen in front of her.
“What is it, Ms Arenson?” asked Captain Singh.
“No, but that can’t be right…” Ms Arenson mumbled. “It looks like the PNMs have shut themselves down again, and that datadump overload is returning somehow…”
“But we cleared that overload,” protested Devereux, looking to Mr Abara for support.
“Yeah!” he added, supportively.
“I know you did,” Ms Arenson responded, gesturing to the console and shaking her head. “I don’t know what to tell you – maybe the systems are all so badly damaged that your repairs just couldn’t hold.”
“But we did a brilliant job,” Devereux insisted, petulantly.
“So Ms Arenson,” the captain inquired. “Are you saying that we don’t have navigational capabilities? And that we’re not likely to get them back?”
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Captain,” said the Second Engineer Mr Chamberlain, who was apprehensively poring over another console. “But the Emergency Override Matrices have just failed again too.”
This time, the protest was Marie’s; “But we only just managed to fix them!”
“Well, now they’re unfixed,” Mr Chamberlain responded glumly.
“Bugger,” Marie said quietly.
“So… no access to lifeboats?” asked Ms Aku.
“No access to lifeboats.”
There was a moment while everyone processed the implications of these developments; a moment before the Chief Engineer heaved a great sigh, and wearily hoisted herself up onto Marie’s chair again, to address the room.
“I’m sorry, everyone. For a moment there, I really thought that was going to work. But all the damage…” she waved an arm around, gesturing to every part of the room, before fixing her eyes on Salazar. “All the damage your people did, is just far too extensive.”
Salazar glared at the floor – humiliated, ashamed, frustrated and angry. This had never been his plan.
“We’re now back exactly where we were forty minutes ago,” Ms Arenson continued. “And again, I’m sorry, but… I don’t know what to do. In thirteen and a half minutes, this ship will nosedive right into the planet’s surface, unless we kill all propulsion, or alter our trajectory. And now, we have no way of doing that.”
She climbed slowly down from the chair.
The Engine Room filled with a crestfallen silence.
After a moment, the door behind First Mate Jiang slid open, to reveal AJ – bruised, battered and exhausted after his long, painstaking trek up from the empty pool down on F Deck.
He hobbled into the room, surprised and confused by the sight of the pirates and the Symphony’s crew united in contemplative silence. He staggered up to Jiang and tapped her on the arm.
“Hey Jiang, how are ya? Did I miss anything?”
Author’s note: I’ve recorded a short video diary entry about the writing of this chapter, and if you’re interested, you can watch it right here.