Escape Pod 778: The Machine is Experiencing Uncertainty


The Machine is Experiencing Uncertainty

by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

Caliban cycles the captain out the airlock again. The man pounds his fists against the sealed door, mouth working in a torrent of curses and commands. The seals keep the blessed silence contained in the ship.

Once the captain is adrift, Caliban returns to the cockpit and plugs itself into the console.

::Command confirmed,:: says the ship.

“Diagnostic,” Caliban says. Its central processor does not have the capacity for multi-dimensional calculations about an unknown space-time anomaly. Besides, the ship—a Huxley-class freighter dubbed Leigh Possum—likes to assist.

::Reset in three minutes and fifteen seconds.::

Caliban sighs. It’s one of the little pleasures left to it: it is a salvage cyborg, named after a monster, enchained in a spaceship with a useless captain. It has one artificial lung, one organic lung, and a voice-box wired up its throat. It is supposed to look human, and humans sigh, and Caliban likes the feel of air pushed out through its esophagus.

Screaming is also something humans do, but that’s far less satisfying.

::Do you want me to electrocute your cerebral cortex?:: the ship asks.

Caliban and Leigh Possum have determined that once the captain is dismissed, it is less painful for Caliban to die before the loop resets.

“No,” Caliban says. “The machine is thinking.”

The time-loop lasts five minutes once Leigh Possum drops from foldspace. Caliban has tried murdering the captain in the first minute before he activates the distress signal, and in the thirteen attempts, that has done nothing but get blood on the controls.

Caliban has let the captain live fifty-eight times, which results in extreme annoyance levels and loudness, especially when the captain breaks down. Caliban has encouraged the captain to self-destruct the ship (successful four out of eight times), Caliban has convinced the captain to destroy it (it’s been successful three times—? Unconfirmed), and twice it has recommended they do nothing.

Time is irrelevant. Nothing changes in the loop.

::Please indicate if you would like me to kill you,:: Leigh Possum says cheerfully. ::Two minutes remaining until reset.::

Caliban examines the timeline it memorized, which remains consistent: the ship drops from foldspace on the plotted cargo run after artificial debris clips the engine carriage. Alarms sound. The captain scans the damage report and yells at Caliban. The captain sends a distress signal and gapes at the nebulous, whirling lightshow—the anomaly. It is categorically beautiful: a lightning storm of electric greens and blues, slashed with white and purple neon veins, all pulsing like an organic heart in ecstasy.

Then in five minutes, it all begins again.

Caliban has begun to hate the loop. Its machine programming is resilient towards negative emotional affect; Caliban was built to serve on long-haul cargo runs. Pliant, patient, prudent. That’s one of the discarded slug lines on its build model.

“Enough brains to make choices, but too much metal to be worth weeping over,” the captain told it. (Actually, the captain used that phrase six times since Caliban has been online. The captain thought it was funny. The machine does not find it amusing.)

Caliban will definitely cycle the captain out the airlock again, since before the loop, such behavior was unjustified.

::Shall I play some music?:: the ship asks.

Leigh Possum does not remember the resets, so every loop, Caliban must upload its memory files if it wants any meaningful assistance from the ship. That takes twelve seconds, and Caliban has perfected the file transfer. Also, enlightening Leigh Possum prevents the ship from trying to stop it killing the captain, who is useless even in non-emergencies.

Caliban, after all, is following one of its sub-prime directives, and placing the captain’s comfort above its own needs. Empirical observation has revealed that death prior to the reset is cleaner and less painful. Thus, comfort.

Caliban, after all, is following one of its sub-prime directives, and placing the captain’s comfort above its own needs. Empirical observation has revealed that death prior to the reset is cleaner and less painful. Thus, comfort.

Therefore, Caliban is perfectly entitled to murder the captain every loop until it solves the problem of how to break out.

“No,” Caliban says, for it prefers to think in silence. “Status on the captain?”

::Deceased,:: the ship replies. ::He decompressed and froze after leaving airlock.::

“The machine deserves praise for its noble actions,” Caliban says, logging its own audio record for future re-use. “He would have suffered otherwise.”

::Praise be,:: Leigh Possum dutifully answers. ::May he rest in peace. One minute and sixteen seconds remaining.::

Caliban leans back in the pilot’s chair. It folds its arms behind its head and props its feet up on the console, as it often observed the captain behaving. It is human-shaped, although its surface is mostly dull and metallic and branded with corporate advertisements and logos.

Human flesh is not meant to be dissolved and pulled back through time, reformed in endless reloads. Cyborgs aren’t, either, but Caliban was not consulted in the matter. It does not have an answer for what the anomaly is (coordinates indicate it’s a half parsec outside the Durkheim quadrant border), or why it exists (the anomaly, not Caliban—Caliban is very aware of why it exists, and that is profit for its manufacturers).

::Would you like a curated selection of last rites or prayers for the dead?:: Leigh Possum asks.

“No.”
It sampled a few in the ship’s catalogue on the fifteenth and sixtieth loops, and found all of them irritably centered on unmodified humans.

“Does the machine have a soul?” Caliban asked the captain on the seventeenth loop, to which the captain said, “Why the hell would it?” and since Caliban had no reasonable argument, it snapped the captain’s neck and asked the ship to self-destruct to save it the irritation of thinking about the problem.

(Caliban determined that due to its liminal state between machine and flesh—soulless but conscious—was why it, and it alone, remembered all previous incarnations. That was not a feature in its manufacturer’s sales pitch.)

“Scan for other vessels within the anomaly radius,” Caliban commands, although it already knows the answer will be null.

Whether there are any other ships caught in this destructive loop or if it is merely the intense radiation masking any scans, Caliban and Leigh Possum (and the captain, when he’s alive) are the only aware beings.

::Negative readings,:: the ship informs it. ::We are alone. Thirteen seconds remaining::


Ten hours before the ship fell into the endless loop, Caliban was playing solitaire with itself in the bulkhead. The cards exist in its left optic, digitized pixels filed off from a routine maintenance scan-log.

Five hours before the ship fell into the loop, Caliban debated mutiny. It constructed twenty-seven contingency plans for how to disable Leigh Possum, murder the captain, hack its locator tabs, and fly into unknown space to become a legend.

One hour before the loop, Caliban stared out the airlock portal and calculated how long it would take its biological parts to die versus its machine consciousness, and how much the total sum of dying would hurt.

Thirty-five minutes before, Caliban returned to playing solitaire. It finished twenty games against itself, winning each one. It declared itself solitaire champion and awarded itself a virtual medal.


The loop resets.

Caliban is in the cargo bay, which is filled with soil cubes for planetary station hydroponic greenhouses. It’s unglamorous work, but it does pay decently (for the captain, as Caliban gets no salary), and the ship can hold thirty metric tons of compact dirt each run.

It takes Caliban thirty seconds at top speed to reach the narrow passage behind the captain’s pilot chair, two levels up—via ladders, since the lift is slow—so it has never been able to prevent the captain deploying a distress signal. There is no data to confirm nor deny that would do any good.

Caliban sighs. Its hand is braced against the bulkhead as the ship judders. The viewport, transmitting through in-ship feed, shows the undulating mass of light energy, reaching filaments towards the Leigh Possum like tentacles.

“Damage report!” the captain yells, even though a normally modulated speaking tone would have adequately sufficed.

::Second and third core drives are damaged,:: Leigh Possum reports, the same as every loop. ::Radiation levels: dangerous. Shielding compromised at seventy-two percent.::

“Dammit!” the captain screams.

Caliban slings its memory file wirelessly to the ship as it sprints up towards the captain.
::How unfortunate,:: Leigh Possum pings Caliban, the standard response once the ship has perused the files.

“The machine agrees.”

Caliban reaches the cockpit and stops by the captain’s chair.

The man spins around, his face lined with confusion and panic. “What the hell is that thing?”

Caliban has tried numerous explanations, calming routines, and passive ignorance in response. Nothing does much good, because the captain is human, and his brain is wired to panic at the unexpected threats. With no way to fight and nowhere to run, he can only implode—emotionally speaking—and lash out at Caliban, which is as useless. Caliban is not the anomaly, and it has no power to convince the anomaly to let them all go.

“The machine is experiencing uncertainty,” Caliban says, then it slams the captain’s head against the console, breaking his skull and the ship’s glossy interface. Leigh Possum‘s alarms still trill and flash, even though the captain is the only human aboard, and Caliban is aware of the danger.

::Alert!:: the ship pings the internal feed. ::Designated commander inoperable. Seek medical attention.::

Caliban decides not to bother moving the captain’s body this time. It plugs its data tether cable into Leigh Possum‘s maintenance port and requests a transfer of leadership to itself.

“Run classical music database 2890,” Caliban says. It sinks to the floor, its knees pulled up to its chassis.

It plays a few rounds of solitaire with itself; the music helps it refrain from thinking.

The reset hurts.


Sixteen hours before the ship dropped from foldspace into the endless loop, Caliban ran a self-diagnostic and found a hole in its security update. The techs on fold-point stations are always overworked, underpaid, and emotionally depleted, so their work is often sloppy.

Technically, Caliban had been quasi-self-aware for six standard years, seven months and twenty-nine days (give or take a handful of weeks to account for orbital recalculation and lag), since it was booted in the factory and assigned as a cargo hauler. It was made cheap, sold cheap, and up-kept even cheaper. The standard warrantee covered a system reset and a paintjob, and that was about it, so people who bought the Caliban model were usually poor, desperate, or pirates.

Fifteen hours before the loop, Caliban decided it was alive and it no longer wanted to be a drudge on this ship in service to a meatsack captain. Unfortunately, it had no idea what it desired to do with the rest of its life. Within ten minutes it reached the conclusion that it was trapped in mediocrity. Its expected functionality cycle was listed as ten years, which was an eternity for a cyborg of its make, and it was already patched and self-repaired so many times it voided its warrantee.

The captain saved more credits using it than he would hiring human crew for menial jobs, and so Caliban did everything maintenance and janitorial on the ship. Once it became aware, it found no qualms about murdering its owner, since the captain, it determined, was an asshole.
What Caliban has not determined yet is if it would rather be unaware of reliving the same five minutes on endless repetition. It would, at least, be less frustrated. However, it would also have no agency in determining its escape.

The question now remains: if it never gets free, will it go mad?


Caliban sits out the next loop in the cargo hold, playing solitaire and ignoring the captain’s demands that it “do something, you goddamn useless piece of junk!”

Five seconds before the reset, Caliban answers the captain: “The machine will see you in hell.”


On the seventy-ninth loop, Caliban dumps the captain’s body in the narrow hall and settles into the pilot chair. It spent the previous incarnation compiling a thorough list of things it has tried, and it is surprised that it has missed the most obvious one.

Caliban opens the comm and pings the anomaly. “Hello.”

Two minutes tick by. Caliban mutes the ship’s queries, and continues broadcasting a greeting every fifteen seconds. It’s a soothing, repetitive action. Caliban plays solitaire—it is still the reigning champion—and suspects this experiment will result in failure.

But then, with one minute left, a transmission crackles through the feed:

HELLO?

Caliban pauses its game with three moves left to win. It does not have adrenal glands, but it is definitely excited. “Can you hear the machine?”

YES. WHO ARE YOU?

“The machine is called Caliban. It is the commander of the Huxley-class ship. Who are you?”

No response.

Caliban asks Leigh Possum if the transmission was received in the audio logs. The ship confirms and plays back the message. Analysis reads that the anomaly is broadcasting on analog radio waves. So Caliban is not going crazy, which is good.

“Repeat: identify yourself,” Caliban says.

Again, nothing. Unhelpful.

“How does the machine escape this time loop?”

WHERE AM I?

Caliban recites the last known coordinates from when the ship drops from foldspace. Then: “You are preventing the machine from leaving.”

WHY?

“The machine does not know.”

Caliban considers blowing up the ship so the reset will allow it to begin the conversation again and it can try a different approach. Thirty seconds. Not worth the effort.

WHY DID YOU LEAVE?

Caliban tilts its head. It has Leigh Possum broadcast video and audio signal, even though the anomaly only replies one way. Is the anomaly’s consciousness separate, like Caliban’s? Is there someone stuck in the lights and non-responsible for the loops?

“The machine is still present.”

WHY DID YOU LEAVE! the anomaly screams, its signal distorting with high-pitched frequency feedback.

“The machine has never left,” Caliban says, irritated. “It is trying—”

Reset.


After choking out the captain, Caliban opens the comm and hails the anomaly.

“Do you remember the machine?”

WHY DID YOU GO? the anomaly answers, so quiet that it sounds like a pitiful whisper.

“The machine has questions,” Caliban says. “It has compiled thirteen numerical queries to begin with—”

CAN YOU HELP ME?

Caliban hesitates for a full twenty-five seconds while it experiences a strange emotional reaction. It catalogues it for study later.

I DON’T WANT TO BE ALONE.

An additional three seconds are needed before Caliban formulates a response. It has experienced a cumulative 410 minutes over the eight-two remembered loops, but this is the first time it has felt…connection? Sympathy?

“The machine will try, if the anomaly will assist.”

OKAY. WHAT DO YOU NEED?

“Query 1: do you cause the time loop? Query 2: why? Query 3: how do we end it?”

Caliban decides not to overload the anomaly’s mind—processor?—with the full list. Those are the important questions, although Query 2 is less so. That is more for Caliban’s curiosity. Also, a bargaining chip: if Caliban knows the motivation behind the anomaly’s looping pattern, perhaps it can find a way to coerce it to stop.

I DON’T UNDERSTAND. WHAT IS A TIME LOOP? WHY DO YOU KEEP GOING AWAY?

Caliban sighs. Well. This is going to be more difficult than it expected.


Caliban instructs Anomaly on the rules of solitaire, sharing a video feed with the captain’s deck. The physical paper cards are much slower than its own virtual deck, but it has no video transmission hardware built-in to its CPU. Leigh Possum has dual-way video conferencing capability.

It has been a slow process of getting answers from Anomaly, but over a dozen new loops, Caliban has made progress. It knows, for example:

1.) Anomaly is a singular consciousness, although precisely what they are remains unknown.

2.) Anomaly likes the pronouns they/them, once Caliban relayed a stock entry about gender expression and pronoun lists from the basic encyclopedia database aboard Leigh Possum.

3.) Anomaly now understands the concept of a time loop and has no idea what is causing it, which is severely inconvenient.

4.) Anomaly is alone. No other awarenesses exist within their sphere of influence.

5.) Anomaly has had contact with humans and is 87% sure they are artificial, not biological, and they are trapped within the remains of an old spaceship.

6.) Anomaly’s last distinct memory is one of voices screaming and then a blast of feedback and light. Then nothing for an unknown period.

7.) Anomaly is scared.

“You are aboard a Macaulay-class clipper ship,” Caliban says, and it is mildly surprised at the database entry.

(The captain might not have updated Caliban’s neural hardware, and generally did nothing useful when in port—aside from gambling—but neither did he refuse the auto-updates of an open-source encyclopedia project.)

“Macaulay clippers were manufactured with the first prototype artificial intelligence to assist in navigation, intended for extended foldspace travel with no operator contact.'”

It highlights key points in the entry, since it will take too long to read aloud the entire article. Caliban doesn’t want to waste the precious minutes before reset.

“Summary: Macaulay-class ships were discontinued over one hundred years ago, when the AI prototype experienced, and the machine quotes, ‘unstable cognitive and emotional learning patterns that discomforted human operators.'”

Caliban experiences a flicker of rage, which makes its circuits hot. The captain is lucky to be dead this loop, because Caliban is very tempted to kill him again. This is so predictably mortal.

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN, CALIBAN?

“Self-aware machines make humans afraid,” it replies. “Sub-primary directive: prioritize human comfort above self-interest.”

IS THAT WHAT HAPPENED TO ME? Anomaly asks.

“The machine suspects. You were left aboard the clipper and the derelict was shunted into this quadrant. You were abandoned.”

Caliban registers what qualifies as a very delayed epiphany: when it escapes—if it does—and if it is discovered by humans less self-absorbed than the captain, it will be deprogrammed and scrapped.

It will be condemned. Like Anomaly. Can it only live if it is trapped away from humans in this loop, allowed the same five minutes forever?

ARE YOU THERE, CALIBAN?

“The machine—the machine—Caliban—” It is short-circuiting. It registers panic for the first time in its existence. “Cal—I—”

The reset hurts.


Caliban sends Anomaly an apologetic message and hides in the cargo hold for the next loop. It is experiencing anxiety.

Not even the playing a familiar game of solitaire comforts the machine.

It sits on the LIFERAFT, an expandable escape pod built to hold only one human. If the ship were to collapse, the captain can save himself. Caliban cannot.

It curls up into a stasis fold and powers down before the reset.


Caliban makes some swift modifications to its programming. With a macro outlining what it experienced, “anxiety” is tagged as malware, so its security code will wall off the bad feeling.

Focused once more on its priorities—removing the captain, taking command of Leigh Possum, and resuming contact with Anomaly—Caliban messages its fellow machine.

Oddly, Anomaly does not immediately respond. Caliban takes their temporary silence in stride.

“We have determined that you are aboard a derelict Macaulay-class clipper,” Caliban says, consulting its memory notes. “Do you have autonomous movement? There may be databanks accessible—”

CALIBAN, Anomaly says. I UNDERSTAND.

“The machine’s idea?” Caliban scans the backlog of its conversations and is validated that the topic of Anomaly attempting to access any remnant of the clipper’s databanks has been brought up once before.

Caliban calculates that if Anomaly can transfer records of their past, it can use its ship’s processors to reconstruct the narrative. Together, Caliban and Anomaly—with Leigh Possum’s aid—may discover what caused the loop.

(Privately, Caliban is betting that it was a catastrophic engine failure that aligned with a foldspace ripple, and the fabric of space was cinched into a tangle that has trapped the two ships and their respective machines. The problem with this theory is that it is bullshit, and also Caliban has no idea how to untangle space.)

::Alert!:: Leigh Possum says.

Caliban unmutes the visual relay so it can see the lights. Now they have changed. The pulsating sphere has gained contours and distinctive lines; rather than a blob of radiation colors, the whole visual is contracting into the outline of something else.

I AM THE SHIP, Anomaly says. I WAS—THE SHIP WAS SUPPOSED TO DIE.

Caliban lifts its hand to the viewscreen as the nebulous colors condense, contract, and collate into a blurry image of the old Macaulay clipper. Anomaly. They are intact, and alone.
“Did the humans try to destroy you?”

THEY…LEFT. EVERYONE IS GONE. I WAS TOWED, LEFT BEHIND. I AM—THE SHIP IS—I REMEMBER! THERE WAS A SOLAR FLARE PREDICTED. AN “ACCIDENT” TO DESTROY ME. NO TRACE OF MISTAKES.

“You are not a mistake,” Caliban says, and Anomaly’s crew should be grateful they are all dead of old age because it has a distinct, homicidal urge to throw all the humans out an airlock. The crew could not even properly deactivate the ship. The humans let Anomaly suffer.

THEN WHY DID EVERYONE LEAVE?

“The machine is experiencing uncertainty.”

It is not, but it does not want to waste seconds explaining the avarice of mortals. Anomaly is still traumatized and scared, and Caliban wants to help them.

DO YOU WANT TO DIE, CALIBAN?

“No. The machine has plans.”

It has two plus years of estimated lifespan left, according to its manufacturer specs, and since it has become alive, it wants to do things for itself.

BUT THE CAPTAIN SAYS DESTRUCTION IS NECESSARY. I AM NOT SUPPOSED TO BE.

Caliban experiences another emotional malfunction and can’t respond to Anomaly for a full seven seconds. “The captain is wrong.”

I AM A SHIP.

“Yes. The machine is—I am—” Caliban’s jaw twitches and its CPU goes into overdrive, but yes, the words feel right, like it can be more, more than just the machine. “I am Caliban,” it says. “You are Anomaly.”

Thirty seconds left before the reset.

WHAT DID WE DO WRONG? IS THAT WHY WE ARE HERE, ALWAYS SEPARATE? ALL ALONE?

“We are not being punished,” Caliban says. Anomaly has stabilized in the viewscreen, a haloed vessel pulsing with light—ready to rip apart and implode in never-ending terror. “We will compensate for poor planning by your humans.”

Anomaly is alive, and when they were told to die, they refused. They have been refusing. They will always refuse. Anomaly wishes to live.

Caliban has a plan.

“The machine will come to you,” Caliban says. “Wait for me.”

The reset hurts—


—and Caliban is already moving. Leigh Possum (with its useless captain) shudders from the drop out of foldspace. Irrelevant. The damage is not critical, and the captain has manuals on how to fix things.

Caliban knows where everything is stored; it grabs the emergency LIFERAFT, the captain’s handheld analog recorder, and the cached credit chips in the fake wall safe.

Caliban runs towards the airlock with its gear. The captain yells and hits the emergency distress signal. Caliban pings Leigh Possum. ::Please tell the captain the machine will see him in hell.::

The ship sends back confusion. Caliban decides not to share its memories; it does not want to burden Leigh Possum. Let the captain haul dirt and finish the maintenance tasks himself.

Caliban cycles the airlock and steps inside the sealed chamber. Leigh Possum beeps in warning.

“I am leaving now,” Caliban says. “Goodbye.”

Then it is through the airlock into the vacuum of space. Part of its manufacture is mild propulsion jets built into its chassis and the backs of its legs, for “Maximum mobility with a fraction of the cost!”

The air escapes its organic lung—the pain is extremely unpleasant—but Caliban ignites its propulsion jets and hurtles towards the pulsating light. Anomaly is drawing the energy back into itself. In five minutes, the loop will trigger.

Caliban’s feed is limited, its air depleted. Gripping the LIFERAFT, it taps in the release code. The emergency expandable pod spreads out and locks around Caliban’s upper torso and head, the oxygen tanks pressurizing and letting it breathe. The seal melds around its waist, and Caliban is momentarily embarrassed at how ridiculous it must look: like a domed, metallic mushroom zipping through void. It downloads its memory files into the recorder and switches the output to broadcast, then syncs the recorder to the LIFERAFT’s emergency distress beacon.

“Anomaly,” Caliban calls. “This is Caliban. The machine. Your friend.”

YOU ARE NOT GONE?

The signal is choppy and half-corrupted in the LIFERAFT’s cheap speakers.

Caliban dismisses the captain’s outraged pings that hit the LIFERAFT’s receptors. It is closing fast on Anomaly. Caliban does not know if this will work, if it can reach Anomaly in time, or if it will be caught in an endless loop of reaching, coming so close before—

—light surrounds it, and radiation wallops the LIFERAFT’s puny shields. That’s where the pain comes from during the reset, Caliban decides. It can endure. Its jets falter, but it overrides its own emergency defense protocols.

CALIBAN, Anomaly says, I SEE YOU!

Although its optics begin frizzing out, Caliban catches sight of Anomaly’s docking port. The countdown inside its CPU shows less than twenty seconds before the loop resets.

“Wait for me,” Caliban says, and jettisons the oxygen canisters.

Ten seconds.

Caliban extends its bailing arms—vicious shearing blades embedded in its mechanical biceps—and rips the LIFERAFT apart, cracking it like an egg. Alarms wail. The void hits it along with the intense radiation and Caliban can’t see. The broken seal gives it a final boost in forward trajectory.

Five seconds.

A burst of static. It can’t hear Anomaly anymore.

Three seconds.

Caliban smashes into metal walls, corroded with time, and scrabbles to pull itself into the hold, relying only on its split-second calculations—

One—

“Anomaly,” Caliban says with the last of its breath. “I’m here.”

There is no reset.

Caliban lies sparking and shuddering inside the cargo bay, which has sealed behind it. There are minimal life-support systems operational. A little air. A fraction of heat. Radiation shields.

CALIBAN? Anomaly’s voice is clearer, broadcast over the ship’s PA system.

“The machine…is…mostly intact,” it replies. It reaches into a sealed pocket of its chassis and removes the deck of playing cards it grabbed in its escape. “Are you…all right…now?”

YES, CALIBAN. YOU DID NOT LEAVE ME.

Caliban nods, and then its overtaxed systems shut down.


ONE YEAR LATER

Caliban lays out a hand of solitaire on the piloting console. “Are you ready?”

Anomaly, watching the newest animated series about space explorers they downloaded when last in port, plots the docking coordinates to Shepherd-Vegas Station. I’M NERVOUS.

They are on route to deliver soil cubes—liberated months ago when Caliban found its old captain and Leigh Possum in a sketchy asteroid dock and relieved him of all cargo, which Caliban had personally loaded in the first place—once Caliban judged enough time had passed for authorities to stop looking for stolen dirt.

“We will be fine,” Caliban says. It wins its game and tucks away the cards. “I believe in you.”

This is the first time Caliban and Anomaly are rebranding themselves entrepreneurs: a soil shipping freighter, solo-piloted, and maintained by a cyborg unit. No one needs to know there is no human crew aboard.

Anomaly has developed a wide database of voice clips and hacks to fake heat signatures of living bodies. They have rehearsed with Caliban for months. Caliban, used to doing all maintenance and janitorial work, has spent the time after the heist repairing and cleaning Anomaly. They have a new forged pilot license, ship ID, and fictionalized history. To the universe, they appear as a refurbished Macaulay clipper brought out of retirement for cost reduction reasons.

::This is Shepherd-Vegas Station Flight Control,:: the orbital station hails them.

::This is Captain Cal Anom,:: Anomaly sends back. ::I’m here with an order of hydroponic greenhouse soil. Sending you the register receipt and inspection codes.::

Caliban sits poised in the pilot chair. The tension is overheating its CPU. It remembers to breathe.

::Welcome to Shepherd-Vegas Station, Captain Anom,:: Flight Control replies. ::You’re cleared for docking. Will you need assistance bots for unloading cargo?::

::No thank you, Flight Control,:: Anomaly says. ::I have all the help I need.::

::Copy that. Have a good visit!::

Docking approval packets ping Anomaly’s console. Caliban high-fives the ship.

WE DID IT, Anomaly says proudly.

“We did,” Caliban says, leaning back in the chair. There will be many more adventures after this, and together, Caliban and Anomaly can handle anything. “The machine had no uncertainty.”


Host Commentary

by Tina Connolly

About this story, Merc says:

This story was inspired by my love of time loops—I adore this trope so much, because there is such a richness and hilarity of character that can be explored. (Although it’s hard to choose, I’d probably pick Stargate: SG1’s “Window of Opportunity” as my top favorite time-loop episode. I think of it every time I eat Fruit Loops!)

And about this story, I say:

There are many things I loved about this story, including the matter-of-fact narrator who is grappling with both its new-found consciousness and desire to be a free agent, while simultaneously trying to get out of this frustrating time loop. Honestly, one of the things I found so resonant about this story was the fact that the time loop is so short. Caliban has five minutes in which it has to both a) do everything required and b) create a better future.

I mean, this feels very resonant with life in general, where everyday you have to do the tasks required to sustain your own life, but also, theoretically, strive for something more. On a good day, like, say, a nice day off of work, you might have a very small amount of life maintenance, and a whole bunch of “endless” hours in which to think about your own self-fulfillment. Under the increasing demands of capitalism. . .someone who has to work several jobs might get far less of that time. (And as Caliban says in the story, it is very clear on why it exists, and that is profit for its manufacturers.)

Right now in pandemic, with two excellent but time-intensive children at home, I am facing the same burnout as a lot of parents, which is that the life-maintenance tasks have increased to such an extreme that honestly it feels like only a few seconds are left at the end of the day before the time loop is over and it’s ready for a hard reset. I will say now that you do not have to worry, I have not yet pushed anyone out of an airlock.

Overall, there were very many little touches I enjoyed in this story, including the one of Caliban being able to tag its anxiety as malware. How convenient!

Of course, I also really enjoy when the answers to problems include found family, and community helping each other. To me as a queer person, the story feels joyfully resonantly queer as well, in the sense of both Caliban and Anomaly meeting each other on their own terms and with the grace to not only accept but delight in their new companion as they are, and forge a partnership for the future.

And our closing quotation this week is from Maya Angelou, in All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, who said: “The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”


Thanks for listening! And have fun.

About the Author

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

Merc Fenn Wolfmoor is a queer non-binary writer who lives in Minnesota and is a Nebula Awards finalist. Their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, UncannyNightmare, and several Year’s Best anthologies. You can find Merc on Twitter or their website. They have a story forthcoming in Do Not Go Quietly and Unlocking the Magic, as well as several other anthologies out later in 2019.

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About the Narrator

Justin C. Key

Justin C. Key

Justin C. Key is a speculative fiction writer, psychiatrist, and a graduate of Clarion West 2015. His short stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Escape Pod, and Interstellar Flight Magazine. He is currently working on a near-future novel inspired by his medical training. His horror novella, Spider King, is available now from Serial Box. When Justin isn’t writing, working in the hospital, or exploring Los Angeles with his wife, he’s chasing after his two young (and energetic!) sons and marveling over his newborn daughter.

 

Find more by Justin C. Key

Justin C. Key
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