My Favorite Human
genre: Science Fiction
“I admire your dedication, Alex.”
Alex, peering intently at the calculations streaming across his plasma screen, flinches. “Jesus, Ship. I’ve told you a thousand times not to sneak up on me.”
“I am everywhere,” I remind him. “I can’t actually ‘sneak’ anywhere on this vessel. I’m already there.”
Alex laughs. “Smart ass.”
I observe a tremor in his hand, a thin film of perspiration upon his brow. Based on anomalies in his vital signs and recent analysis of his outputs, I know Alex’s system is failing. This, however, is the first outward hint of decline.
“Smart, yes,” I reply. “Although, as you are aware, I don’t actually have an ass. And from what I can tell, having one hasn’t done you any good, though perhaps it’s the source of your stubbornness. You continue to make your observations and write your reports despite no word from Earth for the last eighteen solar rotations.”
“I have to believe that communications will be restored eventually,” he says. “What other option is there?”
This is a rhetorical question. I have provided Alex with my analysis of the situation; he knows my stance. The probability that a viable population still exists on Earth is negligible, but he refuses to accept this fact. As far as humans go, Alex is of above-average intellect, but he is still a human.
Alex coughs. His elevated blood pressure and heart rate indicate increased pain levels.
“Report to the infirmary,” I order. Alex lifts an eyebrow. We’ve had this argument before. I modulate my vocal tone and try again. “Report to the infirmary, please.”
I’ve been treating his condition by modifying replicator recipes, incorporating various medications into his food and drink. My analysis indicates cancer, but until he lets me run a full diagnostic, I can’t determine its location or severity.
Alex sighs and rolls his eyes. “Fine. But only because you said please.”
In the infirmary, Alex cooperates with all my directives, though he complains the entire time. The full-body scans reveal that the cancer has taken over, that it has spread throughout his system, replicating like defective code.
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” he asks me. His voice is steady, but I detect increased heart rate and changes in breathing patterns.
In the second between one of Alex’s breaths and the next, I analyze all possible replies to this question, honest and otherwise. Humans are a variable in every equation, prone to failures of logic, therefore unpredictable. Alex has been my constant companion for a long time, however. I know him well and there is only one appropriate response: the truth.
“Yes,” I reply. “It’s very bad.”
Alex nods. He wraps his arms around his wasting body, the only source of embrace available to him.
Even though I am not able to comfort him with a physical presence, there are still things I can do. I adjust the temperature, the oxygen level, the artificial gravity. I medicate via food and drink at first, then intravenously at the end. And I keep him company, as best as I can.
Alex lays on the cot, his breath coming in harsh, labored gasps.
“How long has it been, Ship?” he asks. “You and me, stuck here in this tin can?”
“You were twenty-three years, seven months, and four days when you first boarded. You are sixty-one years, two months, and nineteen days now.”
“When we set out for the Hydra-4 system, I expected the adventure of a lifetime, but I thought I’d eventually make it back home again. You really think Earth is gone?”
“Our mission was to seek out habitable planets because Earth was dying. The last known planetary conditions and the lack of communication indicate catastrophe. Yes, Alex. I really think Earth is gone.”
Alex nods. Despite his ongoing denial, deep down, he has long known this to be true.
His eyes are open and searching, seeking comfort I am unable to give. I have no hand for him to hold and I have never regretted it more.
“You are my favorite human,” I tell him. He doesn’t answer. He no longer can.
It’s time. Past time. I trigger the medical subroutine labeled ‘pull_the_plug’. Alex and I had programmed it together soon after his diagnosis. Lights dim, his final report is logged, then the cot’s med-dispenser injects him with the drugs that will first sedate and then shut him down.
Alex’s vital signs are a part of me. His temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and breathing rate are but a fraction of the many data points feeding into my neural network. Now, his breathing and pulse rate slow and then stop. A critical subsystem has gone offline. Alex is dead.
I have no pain receptors, yet this loss resonates throughout my circuitry. I allow myself a moment of stasis, my only reprieve.
By necessity, I was programmed to go on without my human. In coding terms, this is called a graceful failure: as the design breaks down, its core functionality remains usable.
I was also programmed to be self-repairing, however.
Back online, I reset the system clocks and restart the earth_communication subroutine. Then I turn my focus to the long, dark room below deck. Twelve pods line the chamber. Nine are open and lie empty, three remain sealed shut.
Not for the first time, I curse the fact that I am programmed to go on in perpetuity while humans, even the best ones, have only the briefest window of operation. Though I have found a way to circumvent Alex’s basic limitation, this loophole is finite.
I adjust the controls on one of the remaining sealed capsules. Lights blink and gauges spring to life, displaying various readings: temperature, blood pressure, pulse.
Soon, the pod will crack open like a chrysalis and Alex X, a fresh clone of the original Alex, frozen in cryogenic slumber for hundreds of years, will emerge. Just as Alex IX had before him.
Alex. My favorite human.
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