“Iteration” by Albert Berg

Iteration

I wake up in a ship full of coffins and hate myself for leaving her.

Somewhere out there she’s still alive; that’s what I tell myself, though at these distances relativistic causality starts to tear down the walls between “before” and “after.”

If you run fast enough time slows down to a crawl. A year can turn into ten or a hundred when you’re traveling at relativistic speeds or if you get too close to sufficiently strong gravitational fields. Through the magic of relativity you can outrun anything.

Anything.

I’ve been running as fast as I can for as long as I can remember.

 —–

The trick is to not look at the coffins. That’s what they told me when I started this job. Don’t spend too much time thinking about what’s inside.

But when you’re pickled in a stasis chamber a million billion light years from nowhere, there’s not much else to fill your mind.

I dock with the fabrication station, turn the coffins on, and set a timer for fifteen minutes. When I’m sure the coffins have been filled I drain the stasis womb and step out into the ship, dripping suspension fluid all over the deck.

It feels strange to walk again. The stasis womb keeps my muscles fit, but for those first few steps the experience of walking is something strange and alien. I’m a baby again, reborn in a silent mausoleum.

I don’t look at the coffins.

I won’t try to convince you I don’t think about what’s inside.

 —–

I pass my self on the way through the first hallway of the fab station. I try a wave, but get no response. I look upset about something.

I want to tell my self to cheer up, but that’s not how it works. Whatever happens happens. This is the first and only rule. Everything else, all the little ticks and habits and mental adjustments, those are just window-dressing, ways to make yourself feel better about the truth.

I pass my self again, in the reactor control room. This time my self nods to me though I seem a bit on edge.

 —–

The fab station is dead. The build has ground to a halt for a no apparent reason. I’m here to fix it.

I head to the control room to get a grasp of what has happened.

You might wonder why I don’t ask one of my other selves since obviously they’d already know what the basic deal is, but none of them will know unless I do the research in the first place. There are no shortcuts; eat the free lunch today and tomorrow you starve.

There’s no obvious damage to the station, that I can find. All the low-level systems seem to be completely intact. The whole thing is just dead.

I pull up the link to the operating intelligence. Nothing. I root around in the system thinking that the link is bad, but things from the back end look even worse. The whole node is just gone. The components are there, but the circuits have been burned out with almost systematic precision. Something cut this station’s brain out with a scalpel.

 —–

I spend more time than I should trying to troubleshoot the thing remotely. If I go down there in person I’m almost certain to run into my self; I’m the last person I want to see right now. But I’m getting nowhere with this and the clock is ticking down. So I bite the bullet and head downstairs.

The central operating intelligence node is situated right in the middle of the fab station where it’s better protected from things like stray meteor strikes. There are elements of the node’s neural network scattered throughout the station, but the bulk of the processor is clumped together to eliminate as much inter-cranial transmission lag as possible.

The room still reeks of ozone when I open the door, the stench of a billion circuits shorted out in a single instant.

And of course I’m not alone. One of my selves is standing across the room, leaning against the wall with his arms folded, looking at me.

“Figure it out already?” I ask, not really expecting an answer.

He gives me a “sort of yes, sort of no” hand waggle. Useless.

There’s a backup processing unit here, kept separate from the rest of the station in case of just this kind of malfunction. It should have kicked in automatically, but for some reason those circuits have fried too.

My self sits there watching me. It’s unnerving me a little bit to be honest. Don’t I have anything better to do? I set up the manual backup process.

“You already know that won’t work,” my self says. “If it did we wouldn’t still be banging away at this nut.”

I don’t say anything. Of course I know that. Why is my self wasting my time with this stuff? We both know how the process works.

My self folds his arms, leans back against a panel. “We live the same day over and over, trying to figure out a problem when the solution is staring us right in the face.”

“What we’re running up against here, the problem we always confront and never solve is the issue of inevitability,” my self goes on. “We’ve been running so long, but from what?”

“You know from what,” I snap, popping the last few connections into place.

“You can’t run forever.”

“Watch me.”

“Time’s is running out.”

My self is right. My timer goes off, telling me I’ve got fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes to get this finished and get into my coffin. I check the setup one last time and initiate the transfer protocol. For a moment there is a low hum of electricity. Then a bolt shoots out from the backup node and arcs against my self, knocking him to the floor writhing and convulsing with the shock.

I run to him, try to resuscitate him, but my timer is buzzing more insistently now. Seven minutes to get back to the mausoleum and get into my coffin. And anyway it’s obvious that he’s gone. The readout on his skinsuit shows no vital signs.

I drop him and sprint back to the docking bay.

When I get there I’m in the other coffins already. With ten seconds to spare, I hurl myself into that cramped space and slam the lid on top of me. Ten seconds tick by.

And then the coffin is the only thing in the universe.

The sleep agents creep into my veins, pulling me down. I close my eyes. And just before I slip away, I see her face, smiling at me from a sunlit morning a trillion miles away and too many years gone.

 —–

This is the deal. Space travel is expensive and slow. Every pound you add to your spaceship costs more fuel. When you’re thrusting at 90% of the speed of light all of those pounds pile up even more.

That problem goes away when a fab station makes a portal to link up with the network, but until then you have to get there the old-fashioned way: throw a bunch of mass out the back end of a rocket and trust Newton to take care the rest.

A stasis womb that can keep a person alive and sane for the 150 year voyage weighs almost ten tons. There’s just no room for two. But one person can’t always do this job alone.

So they send along the coffins.

I don’t pretend to know exactly how the coffins work. I’m really just a glorified IT guy.

I only know that they separate themselves from the timestream somehow. Get in at the right time, and they reverse the flow of time.

Turn them on and a moment later you’re in there, you from the future, assuming of course you got into the coffin in the first place.

When you first hear about it, it seems like it must be some kind of joke.

It’s only after you’ve thought about it for a while, really understood the costs of deep space travel and benefits of this setup that you understand it actually is a joke.

And you’re the punchline

 —–

I wake up hating myself for leaving her. And then I remember I’m dead.

It hits me like a freight train and somehow my first reaction is to hit back.

The coffin opens and I see my selves rising from their slumber. It’s rude to stare, but this time I do anyway. Who has time for the rules now? And one of them stares back, and…smiles? Does he think this is funny? That it’s some sort of joke?

I don’t have time for this.

Next task on the docket is ripping miles of electro-neurons out of the walls of the fab station. In theory I’m supposed to be careful about this, preserve them as best I can. In practice right now I don’t much care about how this stupid computer died or why.

I grab bundles of fiber-cable in my hands and tear them free from their moorings, leaving the snake-like cords heaped on the decking like I’m Medusa’s hairdresser.

When I get bored with that I grab a wrench and whale on a nearby readout until the permaplastic cracks. The screen flickers, but doesn’t go out. I want to smash things, but I’m on a ship that’s hardened against meteor strikes. There’s not a lot to break here.

Back to pulling wire then.

I see my self come down the hall a little way back and look at the cords I’m leaving in my wake. I stop and watch at him hook up one from his personal diagnostic device to one of the nodes in the fibers.

I’m still trying to figure this out!? What is wrong with me?

I stride down the corridor, my boots lamming out a steady rhythm on the steel decking. My self doesn’t even look up. I grab his collar and slam him up against the wall. “You think this is some kind of joke?” I growl.

My self shakes his head. He looks calm. Almost impatient.

Of course he does.

I pound my fist against the bulkhead, right next to his face. “This! Is a waste! Of time!”

My self looks back at me unperturbed, a mix of pity and disgust coloring his expression. “I’m not the one wasting time,” I hear him say. “You are. You have been for years.”

That knocks me for a loop. I let go of his collar and sink to the deck with my head in my hands. Somewhere, as if in the distance, I hear the diagnostic computer beep, and then footsteps as my self walks away down the corridor.

I pull out my own computer, and pull up the stored videos of Angie, stuff from before she got sick, and after. I play through them all, but none of them are right. Because the one that’s playing in my head is the memory of her saying, “Don’t do this. Don’t leave me alone.”

And I tell her about the hazard pay, the insane sums that Reach Inc. will throw at her health problems. Only that isn’t the real reason I’m going. I know it now. I’ve always known it.

I sit there hating myself for what seems like an eternity. Only it isn’t eternity. Because my warning alert chimes letting me know its time to get back to the mausoleum, and into my coffin.

I see my selves in the mausoleum climbing into the coffins, but I don’t say anything. I don’t want to say anything. I’m going to die out here with only my miserable self for company. And she’s going to die too or maybe she already has, and I wasn’t there.

We are dead and dying and alone.

In the coffin she smiles at me behind my closed eyes, but I am too ashamed to meet her gaze.

 —–

I wake up hating myself for hating myself.

Where exactly do I get off just giving up like this? Just throwing up my arms in despair and spending the rest of my time wallowing in the mud of my own stupid depression? That’s not who I am. That’s not who I’ve ever been.

This is a problem. That’s all. I just have to find the solution.

You can’t change the future. That’s what they tell you. You can’t make things happen a different way than they happen. The day plays out like it plays out. You just have to work around it.

Screw that.

This is my life we’re talking about, you understand?

My. Life.

Who cares what some guy in a lab coat a trillion miles away says?

Gotta solve it then. Why did it happen? Why did this thing die? This stupid electronic brain in the middle of nowhere ends up fried for no reason. If I can solve it, then I can fix it. If I can fix it, the stupid thing never zaps me.

I’m off and running. There’s not much time.

Over the next hour I chase down every lead I can think of. I’m in all the databases, all the backups, but there’s nothing. The clock is ticking and there’s nothing here.

No record of any strange electrical fluctuations (which the computer should have been shielded from anyway), no significant equipment failure, none of the power stations operating outside of parameters.

This whole place is tighter than a drum. There’s just no one left to bang out a beat.

Only one thing left to do.

I have to ask the computer what killed it.

I know, I know, I said it was gone. But that’s not completely true.

The central system is fried, sure, but on a network this complex there are a thousand redundancies, pieces of the central system stored in the station’s extremities for speed and convenience, dim ghosts of the original mind living on in the husk of its discarded body.

Probably not enough to reconstruct an exact replica, certainly not with the time I have left, but maybe there’s enough to get an idea of what happened.

I head down to get samples from the neural nodes I was pulling out of the walls yesterday. Of course I meet up with my self from yesterday in that corridor along the way. Almost feel sorry for him. What a poor sap I was, wallowing in my own wasted opportunities.

Then I’m moving on, moving out. Time is running out. I know that might sound like an oxymoron, but it’s true. I’ve counted the filled coffins. This is the last run-through before the day I die. I’ve got an hour to figure this thing out or I’m toast tomorrow.

I can’t be sure if I’ve got enough of the pieces, but I can’t wait any longer. I mash up what I’ve gathered of the ship’s “brain” and run it on an isolated neural network.

It starts up, smooth as silk, but before I can even try to interface with it, the whole thing goes haywire. Before I know it half the network has fried itself in a weird looping Ouroboros of deletion crashes and fried circuits.

No!

I smash my hand against the wall. This isn’t right! I did everything right, the system was clean! Why did it crash? Why did everything burn?

The system I’m working on is a shallow facsimile of the one the mainframe would have run on, and it’s not connected to any of the same infrastructure. Meaning the problem is in the programming of the brain itself. Meaning…

I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding and turn away from the computer. I’m not alone. My self is here too. The last one. The dead one.

“What do you think caused it?” he asks. “What makes anything that is, want to stop being?”

“Why ask the question when you already know the answer?”

My self smiles.

“Right,” I say, “Futility.”

“Or loneliness.”

“Maybe they’re two sides of the same coin. Maybe you need people, other people to distract you from the fact that everything boils down to death. Cells die. Stars burn out. The universe goes cold. Sooner or later, everything must go.” I think on that for a while, then ask, “But why this one? Why not all of them?”

He smiles again.

“I don’t have time to find out, do I? It’s a question I’m never going to be able to answer.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For everything. For thinking I could change things that couldn’t be changed. For running from things that no man can run from.”

“But you’re here now. You don’t have to leave. You don’t have to go to that room at all. Just go back to your coffin and everything will be alright.”

“Will it?”

I know what I’m getting at, but I’m not ready to accept it. “You can just give up? Stop fighting? How? Every fiber of your being should be fighting against this.”

My self just looks at me, waiting for me to figure it out on my own. And of course I do. Because he already did.

“Because you can’t outrun it. Because you can’t change it. Because…because the only thing you can do with the inevitable is accept it.”

He points a finger at me. “Bingo.”

“Are you scared?”

“Are you?”

I give him a, You know that I am, look, and he holds up his hands in surrender.

“The way I figure it, I never know what happens when I go to sleep,” he says. “I never dream in the coffin. The lid closes, the gas comes in and for ten hours I’m nowhere. My heart is still pumping and my lungs are still breathing, but the thing that I call ‘me’ isn’t anywhere. And when I think about it that way…well maybe this isn’t so bad.”

“You think…maybe…”

My self arches an eyebrow at me.

“You think she’s out there somewhere. Waiting for us?”

“I don’t know,” my self says. “But it’s nice to think, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah it is.”

My timer beeps, and my self rises. “Don’t let me keep you,” he says. “I’ve got a date.”

I nod, still not fully understanding, but believing that I will when the time comes.

I don’t run back to the coffins, but I don’t run away either. I nod to my selves just before I climb into the coffin. They don’t nod back. But that’s okay.

The lid shuts and I close my eyes.

And as the gas rushes in I see her face smiling down on me from a sun-soaked hill from a memory beyond time.

 

 

 

 


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Albert Berg was born in the swamps of Florida and quickly developed a gripping writing style by wrestling with crocodiles. It is said that he hypnotized five gators in a row by the age of nine with his melodic prose and infinite imagination. Albert is a true menace in the arena because of a steadfast ability to remain true to his roots of thoughtful contemplation despite the hurricanes that pass all through his state. You never know what you will get from Albert, be it sentient paper products or religious squirrels, but you do know that behind the flash there will be a well thought out story that will make you reflect on your own life.  Albert is the author of The Mulch Pile and A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw.

photo credit: playful.geometer via photopin cc

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3 Comments

  1. So, Albert Berg has pulled off a magic trick. I thought I was reading one type of story because I was distracted by the science fiction trappings and trying to figure out what was going on. Instead, I was reading something completely different.

    There was no bait and switch, just a growing realisation that there was a whole other level to the story that Albert was gently introducing.

    I really liked the way Albert handled the minimal set of characters, the pacing and the contrasting slow discovery of the real story. I was delighted by the ending. I felt rewarded by it, and it made me go back and read the story again.

    As you can tell, this story really worked for me.

  2. Agreeed wholeheartedly with the above comment. In fact, it’s like you stole the review I was to write from my head.

    But seriously, this is a great example of the ability of science fiction to be adaptable to really any type of story. Excellent work.

  3. Jon Jones (@dvwhat)

    I also resound @dococcupant’s review. This one is bouncing around in my head quite a bit, and I am enjoying the crisscross journey my thoughts are taking on this very meditative type of story. It was beautifully written, evoking elements of “The Fountain”, “Silent Running”, “Moon”, and perhaps a very small sprinkling of “Pandorum”.

    Another beautiful and thought-provoking entry from the inestimable Mr. Berg.

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