Captain Carthwright’s main screen flickered. An image of a laughing, smiling child jumped onto the monitor for just an instant. The screen went back to normal. Carthwright thumped the display.
“Stupid machines never work right,” he muttered. “The future of spaceflight, they said.”
“All of the computers are operating within normal parameters,” said one of the ship’s robots, coming up behind him.
The ship didn’t strictly need the robots. It could self repair without extra hands or with Carthwright, even. The robots were designed to keep him from going mad on the journey. He was the only human awake on the ship. Everyone else was in stasis for the nine month journey to Mars. In fact, he didn’t even need to be awake. The ship was designed to land on Mars, complete the terraforming tasks on its own and then wake the colonists from stasis. No one felt comfortable leaving it all in the hands of computers, though. Carthwright volunteered to be the one awake for the trip – his family was asleep in the stasis pods and he wanted to be sure that they made it to Mars in one piece.
“How would you know if you weren’t ‘operating in normal parameters’?” He asked the robot next to him.
“We would know,” it said.
“You didn’t tell me how.”
“It is beyond your ability to understand,” said the robot.
Carthwright grunted. He got up and walked towards the back of the ship. Twice a day, he looked at all of the passengers in their stasis pods. The robot followed him this time.
“This is unnecessary. We are constantly monitoring their vitals,” said the robot.
“The limitation of your robotic nature is showing. I come by here to remind myself of why I am awake and alone for nine months,” he said.
“Is your memory so fragile?” asked the robot. “We know human memory is fallible, but you would be under the average if you forgot twice a day what you were doing. “
“It’s about emotion,” said Carthwright. “You can’t understand.”
“I am programmed to understand human psychological and emotional conditions,” said the robot.
Carthwright decided to stop speaking to the robot. He touched the glass of the stasis pods as he walked by, as if to give each sleeping person a human touch. Humans needed to be touched by other humans. Often. It was something the machines hadn’t considered for Carthwright.
He ate alone in a mess hall that was built into the ship. The ship also had sleeping quarters for all of the colonists and their families. All of this was for the unlikely eventuality that the stasis pods failed and the colonists had to wake early. Carthwright was reading a book on his tablet when the screen flickered and for the second time that day, he saw the image of the smiling, laughing girl. He thought about telling the robot about it but knew that he would get the same response – the computers are working fine.
Sleep was hard to come by that night. He had seen the image of the young girl for only a split second each time. It wasn’t long enough to truly register all of what he was seeing. He put his daughter’s face to the girl, but he knew he was just using an image in his own memory to fill in the gaps of the short glimpse he had gotten.
The ship had created a sleep and wake schedule for Carthwright that mimicked Mars’ days. They told him when ‘night’ had started and ended. He went along with it so that he would be ready when they got to Mars.
“Good morning,” said the robot as he entered the cockpit.
“Good morning,” Carthwright said. “How is everything looking?”
“We will be at Mars in two days,” said the robot.
“Great,” he said. “Open the blast window; I would like to see the planet on our approach.”
“Not yet,” said the robot. “There is still too much radiation to risk opening the blast shield.”
“Fine,” he said and strode off for his check on the colonists.
Carthwright took an extra minute at his wife’s pod.
“I think I’m going crazy, Joanie” he said to her pod. “I thought for sure I saw Cassy in the computers. How crazy is that?”
The ship lurched and shook all at once. “What was that!” he shouted. No response came from the robots or computer.
He was about to run to the bridge when alarms started ringing. Red lights flashed next to the pods. He ran over to the control console and looked at the graphs of the colonists’ vitals. They were all tanking. He smacked on the large red button that would open all of the pods. A hiss of air came out of all of the pods, but other than that, nothing happened. The alarms continued to ring and the lights continued to flash.
He ran to his wife’s pod and tried to rip open the door. There was no handle. He tried to get his fingers under the lid. He could get no purchase. He screamed and thumped on the glass. Tears began to run down his face.
“Daddy,” he heard a young girl’s voice say.
He looked around and didn’t see anyone.
“Daddy,” the voice spoke again. He looked at the monitor on the wall. His daughter’s face was looking out at him.
“Pumpkin? How are you here?” he asked.
“Daddy, it’s okay. She’s not dying,” his daughter said.
“They all are,” he said.
“No, none of them are. This is a simulation. The computers wanted to see if a human could rescue the colonists if the ship failed.”
“Well, I could have if they put a damned handle on the pod doors.”
“This has been noted. Your existence is no longer required. Your memories and personality will be wiped from the computers. Goodbye, daddy.”