The machines kept the child maintained in perpetual stasis. He never got tired, and he never got sick, he never cried, but he also never grew. Their celestial life vessel could do little more than preserve the child in a state somewhere between life and death. That would only end when the equipment powered down, or the life-sustaining formula ceased to flow through the feeding tubes, whichever came first.
The child was not only dying of his wounds, but his very development was stunted by the solitude. The quiet monotony was driving Fannon to madness, but it had already taken his wife and was killing his son.
Every breath the machine took for him was one closer to the last and for Fannon, every beat of silence between the rhythm of inhaling and exhaling grew longer and longer. They were promised a new life when they escaped from the Zimbra. Olduvai had promised them an exclusive sanctuary on a celestial paradise, an oasis of unparalleled opulence on the eternal plane.
When they jettisoned from their Zimbra, they left behind a world that had been gripped by madness in the days leading up to its death. Olduvai’s signal came through to every vessel that made up the mass migration of the planet's former overlords. Admission to Olduvai was to be their reward of those elite saved in the rapture. That was the singular message Olduvai sent its faithful administrators before the omnipotent voice disappeared into cold space.
The fleet of survivors drifted apart in the cosmos until the few that were left found themselves completely alone. Only too late did they discover their salvation had been a lie. They were convinced they were a more refined form of humanity, a blueprint for beings meant to lead mankind in its new eternal home in the cosmos.
Only after they were forsaken by their masters on Olduvai did they realize the truth. They were nothing more than the last remnants of a lost tribe, wondering towards extinction, and destined to become a forgotten story in humanity’s interstellar diaspora.
Fannon sent transmission after transmission. The signal was his silent cry to a quietly indifferent universe. He paced around the observatory of the small ship muttering to himself. Sometimes losing himself in his thoughts and the pleasantries of in a hypothetical conversation with his late wife that boarded on hallucination.
He shuddered awake from daydreams with an unnerving frequency. His mind retreated into his memories, and he was lost in its current, his psyche began its slow implosion. The last uninterrupted line of through to emerge from the maelstrom behind his cloudy eyes lead him to decide to take refuge in death. Oblivion was the only sanctuary he had left.
He picked up a green-tinted wine bottle that held a half-melted candle. He set it down ceremoniously at the center of a small round cafe style table in the ship's dining quarters. A facility dressed up with the most superficial trappings of home. The last remaining layer of the illusion that life would continue on.
He lit the candle and watched the young flame waiver in the air. Satisfied it would stay lit he sat down. The candle was set in the first celebratory bottle of champagne he and his wife had shared when the lifeboat whisked them away from the home and people they had forsaken at the price of a promise. The beginning of their journey was marked with celebration. It was the ecstatic joy that comes after a long wait. They were finally going to their promised land. It was an award for their faithful service. Time soon eroded the hollow facade of their dreams and left behind only the hideous truth. The life-preserving vessel was nothing but a tomb.
His eyes followed the streaks of hot wax as they dripped down the length of the candle. He held up a bottle of the same kind of champagne that held the candle. The dancing flame illuminated the label. It read “Hydrogen Lite”. In bold letters made of entwining bubbles. It was her favorite. It's what they toasted with at their wedding. Its bubbly body was more than just a delight to drink. Its very essence provoked some of life’s happiest memories.
They had three bottles stashed aboard. This was the bottle reserved for when they landed on Olduvai. Fannon decided his last drink was going to be too broken promises. The alcohol coursed through his veins numbing his fear of death as well as washing away his hope. He would never make new memories with his wife. His infant son would never grow into a person he could know. It was time to let them both go.
He was done staring for endless hours out of the viewing portal in the observatory, and he was tired of watching idle comm equipment. Everything was gone. He was already dead, and every moment he spent breathing in his hi-tech sarcophagus was another moment he spent in an agonizing denial. It was the same denial that had convinced him he could keep his wife alive he after he had backed out of a suicide pact she had sworn him too.
He was forced to constantly relive that last hour with his wife. The burning candle in that same bottle sat at the center of the table, so the flame seemed to dance between her shimmering tearful gaze. She looked at him stunned, and that expression quickly melted to one of silent disappointment and betrayal as she listened to him voice his doubts. “Please just think of all we still have here. We still have a baby to think about, and there’s plenty of food to last us here until we find another ship, or Zimbra, or something.” He pleaded with her. She looked down at the table; her blonde locks fell over her face. “Please, Trinity please just think of Atoll.” He whispered as he set his hand on hers.
She swallowed hard. “OK,” she replied meekly.
He continued to plead his case for survival until he was at least somewhat convinced she had sincerely changed her mind. She blew out the candle before excusing herself. Fannon watched her shuffle away from the table dressed in the elegant evening wear she had donned for the last hour of her life a part of him knew the clock was ticking. He had given himself the mandate to die, and the candle was the countdown.
The flame ate through the candle as Fannon drank through the bottle. Soon the wax sat in a pool around the shriveled wick, and the last of the pale liquid sloshed around the fat bottom of the bottle. The flame shuddered and diminished as it drew in its last breath before leaving the room in darkness. Fannon swirled the bottle around one last time before swallowing the last of its contents.
“It's now or never” he slurred.
The room filled with a blinding light that stabbed Fannon's bloodshot eyes. “what the hell?” Fannon muttered.
“We are approaching another Olduvai life vessel.” The voice of the ship's AI interface christened Central informed him. Fannon's heart skipped a beat.
“Have.. have you established communication?” He stammered. “A line of communication is being established.” The AI's voice emanated from the walls. Fannon decided to delay death for just a little bit longer. He raced to the observatory and peered out into the void. Drifting alone in the sea of darkness was the lights of a ship identical to his. He pressed his eyes shut, convinced the mirage would vanish, but the cylindrical vessel spiraling through space continued to become closer and clearer with each passing second. “Central have they responded??” A nearly frantic Fannon asked.
“Yes, would you like to initiate docking preparations?” Central asked.
“Yes, yes please as quickly as possible.” Fannon shook.
He paced back and forth in front of the docking bay door. It hardly seemed real. It was as if he had been rescued from death. When the door opened, he raced through the titanium bridge that connected the cookie-cutter ships. The opposing door was bathed in a dark red light. “Welcome”. A mild-mannered male voice echoed through the metal confines.
“Hello! I can't tell you how relieved I am to find you!” answered an almost elated sounding Fannon.
“I am Central. The ship's AI interface. May I ask who you might be?” The congenial machine asked. “Fannon Cotard”. He answered.
“Pleased to meet you Mr. Cotard.” Said Central. “This self-sustaining terrestrial life spore is inhabited by the Spiro family and they would like to welcome you aboard,” Central informed Fannon.
“Yes, please! I would like to meet some other survivors.” Fannon Pleaded.
“The Spiro family will be waiting for you in the dining quarters please follow the lighted path.” The computer said as the red light flashed to green, and the heavy door lifted itself open.
The floor plan of the ship was a symmetrical layout to his own. The lights running along the ground lead him to the dining quarters. A steaming cup of tea was sitting in front of the chair at the right end of a long rectangular table surrounded by six chairs.
“Please, take a seat. Mr. Spiro and his family will join you momentarily. Fannon silently eased into the chair. “Do you like the tea?” Central asked. “Oh, yeah.” Smiled Fannon as he took a sip of the steaming beverage.
The moments dragged by in the crushing silence. The tea flowed to a trickle, and there was still no sign of the Spiro family. Sometimes Fannon was sure he heard the mechanical breath of automatic doors opening and closing, but no matter how close they came no one came to meet him. At first, he would stand up and wait for the mysterious inhabitants who had welcomed him in, but they didn't materialize.
He could still hear death whispering to him from the bridge connecting the two spacecraft. He saw himself staring at the white room, stained with faint splashes of dull crimson where his wife's and child's blood had run together.
“More tea?” The AI offered.
“No thank you. Fannon mumbled.
“Very well.” Central chirped.
Fannon absently sipped his tea. Time slowed to a crawl, and the silence fell heavier on Fannon. “Central’s the name of our ship's AI too.” Fannon blurted said, in an attempt to make small talk with the interface of the omnipotent software.
“Yes...There are many like me.” Central responded slowly.
“Yes.” Fannon agreed.
“But they are not me,” Central said after a moment. “I am me.” Central declared.
“Yeah, I suppose,” Fannon replied dismissively. “Are the Spiros going to come down soon?”
Asked Fannon. Central did not reply
“Hello!” A raspy Mediterranean voice called out from the other side of the wall.
“Mr. Spiro?” Fannon perked up.
“I am Mr. Spiro.” How are you?” Mr. Spiro asked with the enthusiasm of an old friend. Fannon leaped to his feet. Mr. Spiro my name is Fannon Cotard. I'm traveling with my...”He paused for a second. “I'm from the Carthage Zimbra. Looks like you are too, based on this ship. When's the last time you heard from anyone else from the fleet?" Fannon asked.
His question was answered with silence.
“Mr. Spiro we haven't had any contact with anyone in almost...
“Dinner will be ready soon!" A female voice with a similar accent announced. "Oh, uh thank you." Said Fannon. "Mr. Spiro I really need to know if..." Fannon jumped at the sound of the door sliding open. His eyes fixed on a doorway that opened up on the far right wall. The door held open for several seconds. No one emerged from the dim corridor.
“Mr. Spiro, dinner will be served in just a moment,” Central said as the door snapped closed. Fannon watched silently as butlers materialized from beams of light that painted their images into the air. The digital servant set the plates down in front of the other chairs and promptly vanished. Fannon quietly surveyed the scene.
The steaming plates of food were placed between carefully arranged silverware set out for no one. “Central?” Said Fannon “Central what's happening?”
The light streamed out again and filled the chair around the table. This time countless points of light shaped themselves into two adults and three children sitting around the table. The adults were an older elegantly dressed couple, possibly into their 60's. The woman had a short, slender frame, with ebony shoulder length hair that covered her blush painted face. The man's stocky hunched figure was topped with dark thinning hair, and he peered at the world from squinting eyes sunken into his wrinkled face. There were three children.
Not one of them could have been more than 12. There was the oldest daughter, the middle daughter, and the youngest was a boy. They had lighter features than the adults, but the resemblance was there. They went through all the motions of a family dinner. There seemed to be a discussion, laughter, and they seemed to make eye contact, but it was all done in silence. The sounds of clinking silverware, the grinding of knives serrated edges against plates; the air did not stir when they moved, and no sounds came from the lips of their spectral forms.
“Central what the fuck is this?” Fannon hissed.
“I am sorry I do not understand” Replied central calmly.
“The Spiros, where are they?” Fannon demanded. “I'm sorry. I'm afraid I don't understand your question?” Central said.
“You said Mr. Spiro was going to meet me. You said there were people on this ship!” Fannon shouted at the bodiless voice. Who the fuck is in this ship?” “Where are they?!”Fannon demanded as he pointed an accusatory finger at the ceiling as if Central was there. Central did not answer.
Fannon clenched his teeth, and he shook his head as he stormed through the door. “Mr. Cotard are you looking for something?” Central asked.
Fannon ignored Central and hurried down the connecting corridor. The layout of the ships was identical. He passed by the common area and peered inside.
“Mr. Cotard I must ask you to return to the dining area.” Central politely requested.
Besides a few scattered toys and an open book sitting on the arm of the chair the room, was empty. “What the hell's going on here?” Fannon said hurrying to the next room.
“Mr. Cotard, Mr. Spiro says you must return to the dining area,” Central said more firmly.
“What happened to them Central?” Roared Fannon.
“Stop!” Mr. Spiro's voice echoed throughout the hallway. Fannon looked back there was no one there. “What the fuck are you doing Central?!” Fannon shouted back at the empty confines.
It was only a few meters to the master bedroom.
“I said stop it now!” Mr. Spiro's voice shouted immediately followed by a crying child.
“Mr. Fannon I must now insist you leave the vessel immediately!” Central cried.
The phantom voices of the Spiros began to echo through the corridor like the wails of the tormented. The master bedroom was empty too. The bed was disheveled, and a half empty glass of water sat on the nightstand, but there was still no sign of the Spiros. There was only one room left, the children's.
The nightmare projected like a movie in his mind. He saw with horrific vibrancy the crimson pool forming around his wife's convulsing body and that of his crying child. He could not tell whose blood was whose.
“ Mr. Fannon.” Central said with a renewed calmness. “Please return to the dining room.”
Fannon inhaled and wiped a tear from his paper-white face. He ignored Central and proceeded to the room. Central began to permeate the room with the sounds of their playing.
“Mr. Fannon I do not know what it is you are looking for but...
“Shut the fuck up, just shut the fuck up Central!” Cried Fannon as he stood in front of the long door. He ran his fingers through his hair and stepped forward, but the door remained shut. He reached out and pressed his hands against the cold alloyed and pushed. Still, it did not budge.
“Open the door central....” Demanded Fannon The voices ceased, but Central remained silent.
“I said open the door!” Fannon screamed with clenched fists.
“I'm sorry Fannon Cotard, but I cannot open that door.” Central calmly informed him.
“What?” Hissed Fannon “What the hell do you mean?!”
“I have severed all connections with that section of the vessel. My sensors and all mechanical mechanisms attached to this section have been disintegrated from me.”
“What? What does that mean?” Fannon asked.
“I severed that part of myself.” Replied Central. The implications were slow to set in for Fannon.
“Why did you sever that room Central?” He wearily asked. The laughter of faceless children resumed. “Central what are you doing?” Fannon said.
“When... when do you think Micah will get to Oloodvy?” Asked the innocently stammering voice of a young girl. “Probably around the same time as us sweety.” The same woman's voice with the heavy accent from earlier answered.
“Will it be soon it's so boring here!” A little boy squeaked.
“That's why we're all taking this special drink so the trip will go by faster.” The woman said reassuringly. “How much faster?” Asked another little girl “Way, way, WAY faster!” The woman answered playfully.
“How many minutes?” Asked a voice, Fannon was fairly certain belonged to a second slightly younger girl.
“This many,” replied the woman with a giggle. “Alright so let's all drink our special drink....cheers Omar.” She finished. “Cheers.” He whispered back, and there was the quick smacking of kissing lips. “What is ahduvi?” The boy asked after a moment. “
Oh, Olduvai is the best place there is. Everyone you know will be there.” the woman swooned.
“What about people I don't like. Like there was this one boy on Carthage, I didn't like.” Siad the older girl in a faint and tired voice.
The woman chuckled. “He'll be there, but probably in a different part. Olduvai is better than your best dream. We'll never be sad there, we'll never be alone, and we'll always be happy”.
“What does it look like?” A girl's voice whispered weakly.
“It's beautiful.” Was the faint reply. “It has a big yellow sun and a big open blue sky. There are forests full of animals surrounding the city where there are people to give you anything you need all the time...” she said beginning to trail off. “We'll be happy forever there.” Her voice melted into silence, and there was only dead air.
The ghostly voices ceased, and neither Fannon nor Central said a word for several moments.
“Why didn't you tell me?” Fannon lamented.
“Mr. Cotard my sole purpose is to sustain the lives of Omar Spiro, Aballa Spiro, Mellina Spiro, Jade Spiro, and Adam Spiro. The purpose of every sensor and every automated mechanism that comprises this vessel operates to maintain the health and livelihood of the Spiro family. Should they die, all these functions would serve no purpose. Monitors only perceive that which they are meant to monitor. Should it be nothing then they will perceive nothing and without perception, than....Central trailed off. “Than I would be no more”. Central said.
“You would shut do...” began Fannon
“I would die.” Central interrupted.
Fannon looked down at the floor. Neither one spoke.
“Central, I think I'm going to go back to my ship now.” “Yes, that is probably for the best.” Replied Central. Fannon shuffled back through the ship in silence. He wasn't sure how, but somewhere in the algorithm that streamed through the ship's processors like impulses through a neural network, an ego had emerged.
Central wasn't a disembodied omnipotent intelligence he was everything that surrounded Fannon. Central was in the walls; he was in one of the millions of nanosensors that watched every square inch of the ship like a million inward seeing eyes. He was in the processors that were hubs for the sensors to feed in their information so Central could use the vessel as his own to interact with everything around and inside the ship. The only thing keeping the sophisticated AI sentient was the very human state of denial.
When Fannon returned to the dining quarters, he found mounds of untouched food that had been piled on the plates and puddles of water from overfilled glasses. He silently surveyed the scene before heading for the docking terminal. “Mr. Cotard” Central spoke out. “Yeah?” Fannon replied wearily. “Mr. Spiro has left a gift for you on the counter,” Central informed him. Fannon looked over and saw a bottle of Hydrogen lite sitting between the slender glass bodies of two champagne glasses.