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HIGH ROAD • by JR Hume

In hyperspace there’s nothing to see. No starbow, no point of light. Only gray nothingness painted on blank canvas. Teller Transport pilot Asmon Cron knew that painting well. He’d driven the starship TT Kilo through hyperspace fifty-one times, according to his personal log.

In the gaps between stars, normal space is different, locked solid in the curve of reality. Suns glared into Asmon’s telescope, beamed streams of energy into Kilo’s receivers. For much of their journey the ship coursed through the fringes of a purple nebula ablaze with star-birth.

Pilot Cron recorded it all. Every digital storage device Kilo possessed was laden with data, stuffed with observations. Transmitters lay idle. There was no one to talk to. Receivers drank in the whispers of the Universe talking to itself.

Thirty-seven years is a long time for a man or even for a jump-capable starship. Not so long for that part of the Universe Kilo traversed. The ship might make it to Madoc. Asmon Cron would not.

“Was it all worthwhile, Comp?” In the intervening years, there had been other names for the ship computer, other voices answering his questions, discussing this star or that instrument reading. Lately, he had returned to plain ‘Comp’, though still speaking offhand, as if to a person.

“Was what worthwhile?” For several weeks Comp had used a soft, artificial voice with subtle overtones of female contralto.

“All this recording, data gathering — everything.”

“The data will be welcome to the astronomical community on Madoc. Some of the observations of stellar development are without precedent.”

“As far as we know.” The pilot’s words were barely audible. “A lot can happen in thirty-seven years.”

“Automated probes can record; they cannot observe with human curiosity.”

“Right.” Asmon was silent for a long time.

***

Twenty-four hours into the Kilo’s hyperspace jump from Prosser to Madoc, her main phase generator had fused itself into a useless heap of metal. The backup generator popped online and failed in like manner. Locked in normal space, crawling at a fraction of light speed, Kilo sailed black depths under the hard glint of uncaring stars.

Lacking the fuel to decelerate and return to Prosser, Pilot Cron nursed Kilo into a perfect trajectory for Madoc. His problem was complex; the journey would require fifty years. Madoc would move much further in that time than it would have during a month of hyperspace travel.

They established a hydroponic garden in the forward cargo bay. Comp monitored the organic processes and carefully recycled wastes. Inevitably, there were losses, inefficiencies, errors. The dried remnants of Asmon’s last meal lay on a plate in the galley. He was too weak to move the ten paces aft; too tired to care.

Months earlier, Comp had begun to monitor the pilot’s vital signs on a continuous basis. Though it could not hope in a human sense, it had developed a kind of compassion for Asmon Cron. The machine understood death as an end state for organic creatures. Beyond that end, its logic did not go.

Asmon’s systems were clearly failing, but the machine elected not to end the pilot’s life with an overdose of pain killer. Comp concluded that it would be most fitting if Pilot Cron were to cease living through natural causes.

***

Several readings dropped to dangerous levels. Comp did not intervene.

The readings stabilized, climbed back to near-normal. “What will they say? The people of Madoc, I mean.” Asmon coughed.

“If the ship arrives…” began Comp.

“When it arrives,” interrupted Asmon, voice suddenly stronger. “When you bring it into port. Not if. You will not fail.”

“Our — the ship’s journey is far from complete. Madoc is yet thirteen years ahead. There are the hazards of space, the possibility of mechanical failure.”

“Yes. Mechanical failure. We know all about that, don’t we?”

“We do.”

Asmon shifted slightly. Dim starlight glittered in his eyes.

“I have seen wonders.”

“Yes.” Comp noted the fading voice, weak physical functioning. It waited with a curious mixture of machine patience and discordant electronic activity. Uncertainty surrounded its contemplation of a future without a companion.

“One does not see…” Asmon regarded the stars in the forward view screen with affection. “In hyperspace, I mean. There is none of — this.” His hand moved in a vague gesture. “Nothing…”

Readings triggered various alarms, already muted by Comp.

A last breath. The final beat of heart. Nervous system and cerebral functions dissolved to flat lines.

Silence.

After a long moment, Comp began to bleed atmosphere off the ship. The only occupant that breathed air no longer needed it. Asmon’s body would lie on the bridge, drying in vacuum. The people at Madoc could lay him to rest.

The computer pondered strange, random impulses. Unsorted memories spilled across cybernetic gateways. Comp decided words were required.

“Goodbye — Asmon Cron.”


JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.

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HIGH ROAD • by JR Hume, 3.1 out of 5 based on 42 ratings
Posted on May 11, 2010 in Science Fiction, Stories
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  • http://www.rustlingreed.com/blog Jeff

    Great spec-fic piece. Enjoyed the interplay between human and computer. Also some really lovely descriptions. There seems to be a much bigger universe than what we see here and it makes this piece feel authentic.

    One small editing note: Seven paragraphs from the end the human character is referred to as Osman, not Asman.

  • http://oscarwindsor-smith.blogspot.com/ Oscar Windsor-Smith

    I was enjoying this story until Asmon became Osman, causing me to wonder whether I have missed a subtle point in the story (Likely. I’m slow on the uptake, and the computer has been known by different names, according to the story) or this is simply a writers change of mind that was not checked through with ‘find & replace’. Whichever, the clunk at this point broke the magic. Shame.

  • http://wwebb3@comcast.net Bill Webb

    I was reading one time and it said our entire universe is inside a glass jar on a pantry shelf. Now, that makes us very small!

  • http://oscarwindsor-smith.blogspot.com/ Oscar Windsor-Smith

    Almost right, Bill Webb, this is actually where the universe is (was?): http://everydayweirdness.com/e/20100411/

    Best

    ;) scar

  • Margie

    Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!

  • http://www.cathryngrant.wordpress.com Cathryn Grant

    Beautiful story, beautiful line: “Receivers drank in the whispers of the Universe talking to itself.”

  • Jen

    What a wonderful sci-fi story! I’d guessed that Asman might die by the end, but I didn’t want to know for sure before the end. And what a great ending it was.

  • Paul Graham

    Enojoyed that one. Reminded me of the sentiment in Rutger Hauer’s speech at the end of Bladerunner.

  • Tyrean

    Wonderful story!

  • http://bookspot.blogspot.com Camille Gooderham Campbell

    Thanks for the editing note, Jeff. The Asmon/Osman typo has now been corrected.

  • http://everydayprose vondrakker

    Strangely JR
    I to am an old farm boy
    From Manitoba no less
    I write the same stuff you do

    5 ***** for a very entertaining piece

  • Philip Tite

    I read a lot of SF, widely understood, so it was fun to see this one today. I especially miss the more ‘classic’ space opera/adventure type stories, and this story certainly had that ‘feel’. So thank you. I didn’t find it overly original or deep, but it was fun to read. The one thing that did grab, however, was the closing suggestion of an emerging sentience of the computer. Again, this has been done to death in the past, but is still a great theme — I’d really love to see what happens (in a follow up story) when the ship arrives at Madoc (hint, hint). :)

  • Ron

    Keep writing Jim, I enjoy it.

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