Room 208

Elaborate Burn

Cutler awoke to the faint, high-pitched whisper of the air recirculators, the same way he had every day for the past nine months. He took a moment to breathe in the almost offensively sterile atmosphere as he lay in the zippered sleeping bag, his eyes still adjusting to the brightening lights that constituted the ship’s artificial dawn.

“Anya, systems report,” he said, to no one in particular.

“No abnormal conditions detected,” came the mechanical reply over the speakers.

He tentatively pushed himself upright and off of the inclined mattress. Much to his relief, his feet landed solidly on the ground, instead of launching him into the air as they had for the past couple of mornings. “So Seifert fixed the gravity,” he mumbled to himself. “Looks like I can go for my run today after all.”

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It wasn’t until his ninth or tenth ring around the ship’s interior that Cutler noticed just how quiet the whole place felt. He was used to being awake before everyone else was, used to the isolation of being millions of miles away from the nearest way station, used to the sense that he was flying further and further into the unknown. No, this was different. He hadn’t seen either of the other crew members since he’d awoken, and the lights had been on full blast for at least half an hour.

No, he was just tired. Or maybe he’d just had a bad dream that he couldn’t remember. Rationalizing away his creeping feeling that something was wrong, Cutler slipped into the kitchen to prepare breakfast for himself.

The logs on the lab computer hadn’t been touched since yesterday afternoon, when Cutler had signed off after finishing up his last experiment. Not even Hamlin, who was in the middle of a time-sensitive xenobiology analysis, had powered on the equipment.

“Anya, life signature report.”

No response.

The sheer size of the ship’s command room managed to surprise Cutler every single time he went in. It looked more like the bridge of some interstellar cruiser with a hundred times the onboard population of their research vessel. The rows of seats and panels, which were arranged to face a panoramic window on the far side of the room, wouldn’t have been out of place in a theater.

Cutler sat down in one of the chairs, in front of a bank of switches labeled “ARTIFICIAL NEURAL INTERNETWORK AGENT: EXTERNAL AUDIO INPUT.” All but one of them were off. He flipped them all back on one by one, then gave his command again.

“Anya, life signature report.”

“All signatures green.”


“Ivan Cutler, command room.”

He waited for the names of the other crew to be read, but all he got in return was a long silence, undergirded by the perpetual hiss of the recirculators.

Taking a deep breath, he leaned forward and repeated himself. “Locations.”

“Ivan Cutler, command room.”

“Signature of Lawrence Seifert?”

“No such signature in registry.”

“Signature of Gregory Hamlin?”

“No such signature in registry.”

Cutler covered his forehead with his hands, his fingers kneading his temples.

“List of registered crew members at launch.”

“Ivan Cutler. Total crew members: one.”

Cutler’s head jerked upwards at the computer’s response, an involuntary “what?” escaping his lips. There are three of us on here. Someone must have messed with the database, he thought. It’s got to be a bad joke.

Throat dry, he climbed out of the chair, turned to leave the room, and instantly froze.

There was a figure standing in the doorway, one Cutler didn’t recognize. It certainly didn’t look like either of his crewmates, that much was certain. For one, it was unmistakably feminine, and at least ten years too young to be doing anything purposeful on this ship. That, and something about the image seemed to float off of the ground, like a ghost.

“Who are you?”

“That’s hard to answer.”

Her voice sounded exactly like the computer’s, but the tone of her reply was distinctly human, not like the generated monotone Cutler was used to.

“Just give me something simple, then.”

“You can call me Anya.”

Cutler said nothing for a while, merely rubbing his temples in vexation. On the one hand, he thought, her response made sense, seeing as how it matched her voice perfectly. On the other, it was completely inexplicable, since the shipboard computer didn’t have the programming to dodge questions like this, and it most certainly didn’t have a body.

“I don’t know how you got on this ship, but I don’t negotiate with bandits,” he said, having managed to finally come up with a satisfactory explanation for what he was seeing. “Whatever you’ve done to Seifert and Hamlin, and the shipboard databases – this isn’t just some common transport, you know. I send out a distress beacon, and the control panel of every MIRA enforcement vessel in range lights up like a fireworks show.”

“You can’t,” the woman said matter-of-factly. “That’s why I’m here.”

Cutler’s voice took on a distinctly agitated tone. “What do you mean, I can’t? Did you do something to the communications systems?”

“No,” she said forcefully, looking straight into Cutler’s eyes. “I’ll explain if you just sit down. There are plenty of seats behind you.”

Warily, Cutler backed into one of the command room’s chairs. As he did so, the female figure vanished from in front of him. Her disembodied voice now issued from the intercom speakers, just like the real Anya’s.

“First things first, Ivan. We’ve lost all contact with the outside world. I don’t know if it’s because of a technical malfunction or just a consequence of our surroundings. The sensor readings are inconsistent. Do you understand?”


“Up until this happened, I was mostly dormant. The entity you’ve called Anya is part of me, a heavily limited non-sentient agent. Emergency protocol calls for my complete activation in the event that the majority of crew members are incapacitated. I am your ally, Ivan. I’m here to save the ship, and to save you, from the complications of this scenario.”

“Incapacitated? Well, what happened to them?”

“They’re physically fine,” Anya explained. “They just can’t be present.”

“What does that mean?”

Anya paused, to Cutler’s mild surprise. It was the first time her replies had been anything less than instantaneous.

“Since this ship was launched,” she eventually began, “you’ve been the only person physically residing on it. The other two – Lawrence and Gregory – were never actually here. Their presence was entirely… projected.”

“Projected? Like what, like holograms? You know as well as I do that doesn’t make any sense. Light shows can’t pick up a cup of coffee, much less a sample of vacuum-raised bacteria.”

“Not just holograms, Ivan – holograms equipped with aggregated nanoscale synthetic haptic response generators.”

“Force fields?” Cutler said, his voice rising in disbelief.

“Force fields,” Anya repeated, with a steadier tone. “Just like they have in planetside hazardous materials labs. It’s just that now faster-than-light communications have improved to the point where bandwidth is high enough, and latency low enough, to let you telecommute to a spaceship.”

“And I get to be the first guinea pig.”

“Fifth, actually. Just the first to suffer a total comms failure.”

Cutler turned towards the front of the control room, letting his eyes take in the scenery outside the ship. All those thousands upon thousands of stars suddenly seemed very dim.

“Right,” he said. “You said something about a technical malfunction?”

“It’s a possibility, yes.”

“Okay, then. Anya, systems report.”