Fermi-bot Frontier by Chris Phillips


Chris Phillips

A static voice in Curt’s ear said, “A light’s busted on level seventy-two. Get it sorted.” It might have been Peggy, but he wasn’t sure anymore. The further out the ship traveled, the more its voices blended.

“It’s Thursday,” Curt said, at least he thought it was. Without night and day it was hard to care. “I’m not scheduled.”

The voice in his ear spoke in a sharp tone. “Just get it done.”

Curt scowled. He could transfer it to whoever was on duty, but he didn’t want to add to someone else’s day. Never ask someone to do something if you had two free hands. His dad taught him that. Curt stood and flicked off the vid-mail screen. Every time he sat down to record a message someone butted in.

As he walked along the corridors that reeked of stale, recycled air, he kept a hand on the rails. If he didn’t the gravity nets might go out. He’d thump his head and get yelled at for not fixing those fast enough either.

Level seventy-two was navigation, an entire level dedicated to making sure they headed in a straight line. The room was a large empty rectangle with lots of screens and coils of wires crammed into a panel-less ceiling. It had a smooth, gray floor. Along one wall, Naomi Chan had painted a large mural with trees and a mountain range that gave off the illusion that they weren’t all stuffed into an oversized tin can.

Since they were pointed in a straight line, the room sat empty most of the time. Fixing lights in an empty room, Curt grinned at the thought as he took down the light tube. He shook it. A loose coil clinked against the opaque glass.

Curt took a device from his belt and programed the specs for a functioning light. He filled the tube with fermi-bots, new sub atomic robots that made nano-bots seem like elephants. Sure, maintenance got easier, but it also got boring.

When the light flicked on, he deactivated the surplus bots and replaced the bulb.

Curt went back to his quarters and started the message again. “Sorry about that. When duty calls.” He grinned. “I miss you, Sophie. Did I say that? It’s hard to remember sometimes. First Officer Bratcher says we’ll be there by the end of the year, although I’m not sure if the term year applies to us anymore. What do rotations matter without our rock and sun?” He shook his head and glanced at the light from the corridor that seeped around the edges of his door. Every so often the light blinked as someone unknown walked by.

“Yesterday I took your advice and tried to talk to Naomi Chan. I couldn’t do it of course. But baby steps, right?” He laughed. “It’s a lot easier to talk to people if I’ve got something to do, an excuse. I thought about sneaking into her quarters and… I know what you’re thinking! It’s that Sophie! I respect her work is all.” He grinned and shook his head. “I’d just bust a faucet or something. You know… harmless.”

Sophie wasn’t real. Well, that wasn’t true. She had been real once, decades to him and centuries ago in relative rock time. She was a girl who graduated from Carnegie Mellon. She sat a few seats away in a dozen classes. On the day before they graduated, at the rehearsal ceremony, he’d spoken to her. She smiled and was polite, but he could tell she had no idea who he was.

That was life in school. Everyone faced the same direction, focused on the same goal. They couldn’t see someone a few seats behind.

Curt shifted in his chair. “Sometimes I wonder if I made a mistake, Sophie. It seemed like a good idea, for the good of everyone and all that, but the further we get from the rock the harder it is to care. Maybe I should—”

A voice in his ear said, “Did you fix that light yet?” It didn’t sound like Peggy any longer. It might have been Justin.

“Yes, sir?”

“Not according to my readout.” The voice was too deep for Peggy. Justin then. Sometimes Curt thought about Justin’s family, but that was all. He didn’t want to pry. Justin might have a wife and kids onboard with more cousins than he could count back on the rock. They probably ate too much at Thanksgiving and called each other on their birthdays.

“System must not have picked it up yet.” Curt closed his eyes. It was his day off. But he didn’t say that. Instead he went back to navigation. Again, the light was busted.

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