Machine of Death: HARD VACUUM
A rejected short story written for the second volume of Machine of Death, an anthology based on the idea that there is a machine that can predict, without fail, what someone will die of.
All thank the Machines, prophets of the Path.
The death machines saw it coming. They didn’t tell us about the Path directly, of course, but when dozens, then hundreds, then millions started to come up as ASTEROID IMPACT, people began to take notice. We knew our time on Earth was up.
So humanity took to the stars, selecting only those who were dying of non-apocalyptic causes to enter into the generational slowships. Lots were drawn, and humans were mixed based on their conditions, so that every ship could be guaranteed to have as few critical mishaps as possible. Suddenly, it made sense why so many were dying in FUSION EXPLOSION and RAPID DECOMPRESSION. But those were the lucky ones; the ones who were left to fend for themselves during IMPACT WINTER, MASS EXTINCTION, or TIDAL WAVE had simply to resign themselves to their fate.
Of course, when an entire species is packing its bags and running, it’s important to make sure that the diaspora can make it as long and far as possible. Everyone knew they were going to die eventually, of course (All thank the Machines, prophets of the Path), but they were given tasks to prolong that as long as possible. Within the ships, all were tested at birth, and none were allowed to ever, for a moment, forget what their eventual fate would be.
Some felt that the Machines were there not only as our tools, but as our gods, telling humanity to go forth and multiply and spread their seed across the cosmos. They foretold us of our fate, and made us realize that our fragile little home was just a tiny speck in the large, uncaring universe.
The clock chimed.
“Wake up, HV-5926,” stated the data node. “You are… FIFTEEN… MINUTES late for scheduled duty.”
She groaned and rolled over, thwacking the node. Ripples of pain shot up her arm and throughout her body, sore all over. “Five more minutes.”
“Request denied, HV-5926. Your calendar has… SEVEN… tasks marked URGENT.” Cool water jets sprayed her from above.
“Okay, okay, I’m up!” she shouted, getting out from under her duvet. She groaned in agony, every muscle movement sending electric stabs of purified murder through her every limb.
She took an ultrasound bath, put on her clothes, and gargled her oral detergent, guarding her sensitive eyes from the brighter-than-usual light above her.
She squinted and checked her watch. “Conduit 17-A, T +00:17:02,” it read, the seconds ticking upward with the unrelenting beat of a wrench on metal.
She coughed, covering her mouth with a hand. As she pulled it away she noticed some flecks of red on her palm.
“I’d better go to Medical,” she thought. “After this conduit repair.”
“You’re late, ‘26,” said her supervisor, CA-184.
“I’m sorry, ma'am. It will not happen again, ma'am.”
“It had better not. You are already on report. You don’t want to go on probation, now, do you?”
HV-5926 blew her nose. “I’m sorry, ma'am. I am feeling sick.”
“Have you been following clean-room protocol? I swear, you’re going to be my namesake.”
“Yes, CA. Cerebral Aneurysm. You knew that.”
“No, ma'am, sorry, ma'am. I probably just caught something from a… friend.”
CA-184 rolled her eyes. “Playing in a zero-vee chamber again, hm? I’ve told you, those things are no good for you.”
“Frankly, ma'am, what I do in my personal time is none of your business,” '5926 didn’t say. Instead, she said, “Yes, ma'am, I will take it under advisement. What are my orders on fusion conduit 17-A?”
“There is a slight coolant leak,” her supervisor said. “Please survey the damage, and repair it accordingly. And remember to make a full report this time. I don’t want to have to explain to Control why we’re auditing our material sheets yet again.”
“Yes, ma'am, right away, ma'am,” she said. She grabbed a diagnostic kit, slipped into a protective suit, and began to climb the ladder.
There are very few good times to vomit; in the confines of a slipsuit, while deep in the zero-velocity bowels of a deactivated fusion reactor’s conduit, isn’t one of them. '5926 clenched her eyes shut as they watered from the stomach acids slowly vaporizing within centimeters of her face. She frantically grabbed for the distress button, pounding it with her fist, calling for help. She coughed and opened her helmet, tossing it aside, and swatted at the floating bolus of gastric fluids, hoping to push them out of the way.
“HV-5926, what is it?” came the voice on her comm.
“I… I threw up,” she said. “I need a rescue.”
“On our way.”
She shivered in a cold sweat for what seemed like an eternity; three minutes later she was collected and placed into quarantine.
“Your white cell count is through the roof,” said the doctor, CH-1849, through the intercom in the glass. “Until we find out what this is, you’re under strict quarantine. No duty, and no air contact with others.”
“Y-yes, doctor,” said '5926.
“I need you to tell me who you’ve been in contact with over the past twenty-four hours,” he said. “They will need to be tested as well, so we can find out what this is.”
“Um… I don’t know. My boyfriend, PC-19, and his other lover, AR-593.”
“Their full causes?”
“Oh… PAPER CUT and… uh… A… AORTIC RUPTURE.”
“I see. Doesn’t seem relevant. But please, continue.”
“We were at a… a party, I guess.” She began to feel faint. “There were a dozen people there, maybe two, I dunno. I think they were mostly system techs.” She inhaled sharply through her nose, and coughed as droplets of blood flew into her lungs, spraying a red mist on the window in front of her.
“Control, I need a trace record,” said the doctor. “Cross-reference the following,” he said, entering the various names into his watch.
Names scrolled by on the wall display, mostly green, some yellow, and one flashing red. 5926 couldn’t make any of them out, her vision blurring with the effort.
“Oh dear,” said the doctor. “This isn’t good.”
“What?” asked HV-5926.
“All thank the Machines, prophets of the Path,” the doctor said, as he left the room in a desperate hurry.
The pounding in her head got worse, every beat of her heart filling her lips and nose with the resounding pressure of a million beating drums. She needed a distraction.
'5926 looked around the sparse padded room. She had been stripped of all her items; her clothing was burned, her watch melted for scrap, and all she had was that little which was around her. Plastic sheets covered the walls and floor, and the ceiling, four meters above her, had only lights and an air vent. The nanothread-enforced flex glass that divided the chamber from the observation lounge was featureless and showed only the room behind it and her faint reflection under the green-tinted lights. The back wall was broken up only by two flush-sealed doors; one had a window back into the quarantine airlock, while the other had no window at all and was marked EXIT.
She felt a wetness around her nose. She coughed, and felt it drip; she wiped her nose on the back of her arm, a red smear remaining behind.
“Doctor?” she asked, hoping to be heard.
There was no answer.
“This one, right here,” came the muttering from outside quarantine, waking her up. The doctor was flanked by two men, in minimal security regalia. She coughed and felt more blood drip out. She looked down at the spreading puddle of coagulated red on the floor beneath her. “Oh, you’re awake,” he said. “5926, I have verified some… very bad news. The party you were at the other day… was there a gene tech there?”
“I… don’t know. Why?”
“Control records show that there was one. They appear to have… well, privacy regulations prevent me from saying, but their name was RV… uh, RETROVIRUS-426. They should have never been allowed to mix,” he said, shaking his head sadly. “Such a shame.”
“Oh,” she said. “So you know what’s wrong with me?”
The doctor and the two security guards each pressed a control simultaneously. '5926 detected the faint scent of metal in the air, and she felt lightheaded.
“This must come as a surprise to you. After all, you you were assigned to the place where hard vacuum would never occur, the absolute center of the ship. You and several other HVs, who were all at that party last night…”
“Doctor…?” she asked, already knowing what was coming.
“As we all know, our time must come eventually. All thank the Machines, prophets of the Path,” he chanted, reflexively, his hand shaking as he reached for another control. The security guards followed suit which a casual steadiness.
“Doctor, I…” Her eyes began to water, as her pulse raced. The room began to go dark, the sedative taking effect.
“And as for you, we now know how,” he said, gesturing to the windowless door marked EXIT.