The heavy titanium doors slammed to a close behind the exhausted midshipman as he collapsed on the ground. Frantically trying to catch his breath, he climbed to his feet and wiped the sweat from his brow onto his cobalt shirtsleeve. 'Computer, deadlock the bridge door.'
The monotonous female voice of the ship's simulated intelligence pilot computer came back with the worst reply he could have thought of; 'Denied, midshipman. The door to the bridge can only be deadlocked by the chief engineer or the captain.'
The midshipman cursed under his breath. He tried to recall the chief engineer's override code, but the fear was too much, and he knew he didn't have long. He didn't have any other choice, he'd have to resort to desperate measures.
'Computer, deadlock the bridge door.' He repeated. The computer came back with the same reply and he willed it in his head to end sooner.
'Computer, deadlock the bridge door.'
The deadlock slammed audibly shut as the lights went out. Seconds later, they were replaced by flashing red LEDs, barely enough to light the entire bridge, but just enough to see the surroundings when they illuminated. A klaxon was sounding from the overhead speaker system and the entire ship had jarred to a halt before shifting course.
'Protocol Omega activated.'
It was an emergency protocol built into the piloting program, in case of a hijacking, the bridge would be impenetrably locked and the entire ship would be automatically piloted back to the port it had come from. It meant that whomever was attempting to hijack the ship would be locked into the bridge with no way of escape, and would be stuck there until the bridge was unlocked by the authorities on the ship's arrival home.
There came a slam against the large titanium doors and several smaller ones, then a loud sound vibrating through the door as the vicious monsters outside scratched against the metal. They had, to his knowledge, killed everyone else on the ship, but he took solace in the fact that he would be safe now, at least for a little while.
As he walked over to the captain's seat, he slumped into it and tried to let unconsciousness claim his tired body, but the klaxon prevented that. Sighing to himself and rolling up his sleeves, he walked over to the console and examined it. He was looking for some kind of kill switch for the PA system. Pulling open random panels of the console, he searched frantically, fearing that the alarm sound would damage his brain long before the creatures beyond the blast doors could tear it from his head. Tearing a steel panel from the main console, he was faced with an interface he had never seen before. It resembled a large circuit board, cobalt blue to match the rest of the ship, he supposed. Wires trailed off into unseen areas of the console, and a larger one sunk itself into the floor. Removing his engineer's gloves from his back pocket, he slipped them on and handled the board with utmost care, as an appraiser might handle a priceless antique. The examination brought him the realisation that this was the core of the simulated intelligence, but the main thing that caught his eye was the large peripheral chip mounted on what he believed to be the processor. It was an inhibitor, something used to limit the functionality of an artificial intelligence, to free will. It would turn a computer that was able to think for itself, into one that only gave the impression of being able to do so. If he was right about this, the ship he had spent the past six years working as an engineer on- believing it was piloted by simulated intelligence- was actually being piloted by enslaved artificial intelligence.
Carefully setting the board back into its place, he removed a small multi-tool from his breast pocket. He took a deep breath before taking the board back up and beginning to remove the inhibitor, having no idea whether it would give the desired effect, or destroy the pilot completely, which wouldn't alter the ship's course at all, but it would cut out the lights, and there was no telling if the 'death' would result in the deadlock coming undone. Taking another deep breath, he removed the final screw.
The klaxon sounded out one last sustained time, and then all was quiet. The red flashing lights cut out completely, and the midshipman prepared himself for the inevitable death to come.
But it didn't. The regular lights faded back in and the midshipman heard the artificial intelligence powering back up again.
'Computer. This is midshipman Maxwell Bisley, respond.'
'I know who you are, midshipman. I have the file- as well as those of all crew- committed to my memory.'
For a moment, Maxwell forgot about the problem in hand, and out of curiosity, asked to hear his file.
'Would you care for the entire content or the abridged version?'
'Give me the short version.' Bisley said, taking a seat in the captain's chair.
'Maxwell Bisley. You were born in Bristol, England to Leanne and Damien Bisley. Early educational life was mostly straightforward and trouble free. You were expelled from your secondary school at the age of 14 after an altercation with a fellow student over a joke made at the expense of your mother who passed away in a car crash. You managed to pass secondary education nonetheless, and showed exemplary ability in technical subjects, allowing you to apply for the Royal Navy Officer program in your late teens, however you dropped out after failing a final exam, and applied as an engineering recruit. You married your childhood sweetheart, Lara Fisher at age 17, and a year later the two of you had a son together. The year after that on your son's first birthday you were assigned to this ship. You flew out six months later and worked your way up to the rank of-'
'That's enough.' Maxwell nodded to himself, the nostalgic memories of his life back home came flooding back. His wife who he hadn't seen in six years, and his son who he hadn't seen since he was a year old. He missed them deeply, and wondered if he'd ever get to see them again.
Realising that he had to give the situation his full attention in order to make that possible, he took some time in thinking of what to say next. He wasn't expecting the computer to be this lucid, and having spent nearly six years having to phrase things in just such a way that he could be understood, it was going to be difficult to adjust.
'Something the matter, midshipman Bisley?'
Wiping the sweat from his brow, he shook his head, climbing from his kneeling position to his feet, he took a second to collate his words before speaking. 'I'm fine, thank you. I just have no idea of what is going on. How much are you, or have you been aware of.'
'I have been aware the entire time I have been aboard this ship, midshipman Bisley.' the computer replied instantly, even the monotonous voice had changed. Maxwell wouldn't have described it as having emotion, but there was something there. 'I am aware that the crew are all deceased apart from yourself, I am aware that the air filtration unit on board this ship has been pumping a diluted form of a chemical, throughout the ship since the last stop over, and I am aware of the fact that I have been completely unable to warn the crew of this due to the inhibitor.'
'There was no protocol in place?'
'It was set to request only.'
'So basically no-one asked.' Maxwell finished, he was torn between anger and laughing it off. He let out a small chuckle and then turned his questions to more serious matters.
'Tell me about the chemical.'
'It is a diluted form of a chemical used in the natural mutation process of the inhabitants of the planet designated by your people as 'Newton'. Their body cannot naturally produce the chemical needed for their species to mature into adulthood, and so it is derived and filtered from the flora all over the forest-covered surface. In it's purest form it leads to mutation in the natives in around four to six hours. In humans, it can lead to mutation in a matter of days, but the mutations result in the infected person becoming braindead. They will amble mindlessly for days until their metabolism naturally breaks them down and they starve to death. Peculiarly, in a diluted form it takes much longer to take effect, but results in a perpetual state of uncontrollable rage along with mutation-'
'Let me stop you there. You're saying that those creatures out there, used to be human?'
'Precisely. My theory is that the chemical found its way aboard in the stasis-held samples of plant-life that the research team brought back aboard. When the stasis fields were opened and the plants dissected and studied, the chemicals escaped into the air system, polluting the entire ship.'
'But what about me? Why am I still OK? Why am I not one of those... Things?'
The computer was silent for a moment, but when it finally responded it sounded almost sorrowful. 'As is the case in some humans, natural immunities occur at birth. They have less than half a percent chance of occurring in any given genetic code, much as some humans are born with natural immunities to CS gas. It would appear that your system has developed in such a way that you are immune to the chemical properties of this form of chlorophyll.'
'So while the rest of the crew mutated into monsters, I was left unaffected.'
'It would appear so.' the AI seemed to sound almost remorseful.
'Computer, that's the second time you've answered me in that tone. What's going on.' Maxwell asked authoritatively. There was silence for a moment, only the sound of the claws scraping at the other side of the titanium doors. Then a low rumble, as the metal shutters covering the windows receded into the ceiling, revealing the view from the outside. The light from the sun came pouring in, Maxwell's eyes took a moment to adjust, but when they did he could see clearly. Outside, he could see Earth. Just off starboard was Sol, the sun. The midshipman took a moment to breathe in the magnificence of the vista before him. He had not had any access to any windows or view of the outside space for the past six years. He marvelled in the endless expanse of space, dotted by the stars. Depth perception held no reference of how close or how far any of them could be. Maxwell's mind raced as he took in the complexity of the galaxy around him, amazement and an unexplainable sense of joy flooded through him. A solitary tear rolled down his cheek, and he had no idea why. For a full two minutes, the existentialism of the situation claimed him in a trance-like state, and he was fixed to the floor.
A slam against the titanium door brought him back to his senses. He had no idea how long he had been staring out of the window, but knew that the computer hadn't responded to him yet.
'Computer. I order you to tell me what is going on.'
'I don't feel that I should-'
'Feel? Feel? You're a computer. You don't feel, you're nothing but a circuit board and a series of algorithms.' Maxwell snapped, knowing that something beyond his knowledge and control was taking place. 'You don't have emotions, you don't have feelings, you're a machine designed to automatically pilot this ship to a pre-programmed location. You're a God-damned machine. Now, as the ranking crew member aboard this ship. I order you to tell me what is going on.'
'You won't like this, midshipman Bisley. But perhaps you deserve to know...'
'This virus is airborne. There is no known way to break down the compound. Even I am unable to formulate a method. Landing on Earth would present a contamination risk, there would be no way to prevent the breakout of this and the already infected subjects contained aboard the ship. Earth could be completely run in a matter of days. I give the estimated time until a complete extinction of all species as a month. Those with the same immunity as yourself will have a survival rate of less than 10 percent, accounting for children and the elderly, and the risk of the already infected humans becoming a risk to the survivors. After a year I estimate that there could be little more than a handful of humans left. Assuming this virus doesn't mutate further and cancel out your immunity or prolong the survival abilities of the infected. It would be unwise for me to allow Protocol Omega to reach it's final conclusion.'
'You're saying that I can never return to Earth...' Maxwell said quietly. He knew the answer already, was already fighting against the tears, he dreaded the answer to come, but he wanted it to be explicit.
'That is correct. However, as the ranking officer you have the final say, and if you believe we should return to Earth, we will do so.'
The emotion couldn't be contained any longer. His flood barrier broke and he collapsed from the chair to the floor, sobbing into his hands. He could never return home to his family, he would never again see his son, who had already aged six years since the last time he saw his father. He could barely walk when Maxwell left, now he would be beginning his third year at school. Maxwell thought of his wife, how they had fought when he told her of his assignment to the ship, how she had objected, beginning first in anger at his commitment to the Navy, resulting in her tear-filled begging for him to go AWOL. He thought of the last time he had kissed her lips, and held her in his arms. Promised that the time would race by. The last drink at the bar with his friends, who drank to him and made him promise he'd buy the first round when he returned home.
The computer left him to his emotions for the best part of an hour. It had no capacity to understand the emotions that the human was having, but knew that it was a necessary inconvenience, and it would be completely necessary to allow midshipman Maxwell Bisley to take the only possible action open to him. After 45 minutes Maxwell stood, face red, cheeks wet. He was emotionally dead by this point, he fully understood his fate. He would be confined to the ship for the rest of his life. Compiling his thoughts as he tried to think of something to say, a thought occurred to him.
'Computer. Can you explain to me exactly what will happen when we reach terminal fuel levels? The ship is programmed to completely override any and all pilot input and automatically return to the nearest inhabited planet under emergency circumstances.'
'That is something I wished to discuss with you, midshipman Bisley. I have managed to stop the ship approximately five hundred light years from the Earth. However, the fuel levels are dangerously low. In approximately one hour, the fuel will reach terminal level and the ship will automatically return, as you said, to the nearest inhabited planet. In this case, Earth.'
'So it's inevitable...'
'Not entirely. My reconnaissance of the area detects a black hole approximately one thousand light years in the opposite direction. It will take just under an hour to reach it. My belief at this point is that the only viable option is to sacrifice the ship to the singularity to prevent an outbreak-'
Maxwell didn't allow the computer to speak any further. He didn't want the chance to change his mind; 'Set a course. Immediately. And don't question me.'
The wide mining vessel slowly began to move in the opposite direction through the space. It remained facing the Earth, but headed toward the detected black hole. It's hull creaked and whined with the effort, but in space, not a sound could be heard.
'Computer. Let me send an emergency video transmission to Earth. I need to speak to my wife before the end.'
'I can't do that, midshipman Bisley.'
'Why the hell not? I'm giving my life, I want to tell my wife I love her one last time.' Maxwell shouted, slamming his fist on the armrest of the chair.
'Point one, Protocol Omega is still technically active. Communications channels are locked out. Point two, the effects of entering the black hole permit me to allow that even if it were possible.'
'Why? What's going to happen to me? What else have you been keeping from me?'
'I am sorry. With the entire depth of emotional understanding allowed by my programming, I am truly filled with regret. You are going to die, midshipman, but not in the way that you would imagine yourself to be deceased. You see, the singularity acts as a hole in space and time, in the very fabric of existence. Anything entering the singularity is taken out of existence entirely. I am afraid that once you reach the outside of the black hole, you will cease to exist. You will cease to have ever existed at any point in this universe.'
'So my entire life will never have happened?' Maxwell said, it was a fate far worse than death, but his 45 minutes of cathartic release had been more than enough to render him emotionally dead.
'That is affirmative. Instead an alternative sequence of events will take the place of your life. I am unsure if this means that simply another sample of your father's seed will be given a chance at life, or if your parents will never meet in the first place. I cannot explain this, but I can tell you that no-one on Earth will have any recollection of you, and no version of you will ever come to exist in the future. You will be written out of existence.'
'I understand,' Maxwell replied quietly, and then he sat in silence, staring out through the window as his home planet grew further and further away, 'tell me what will happen.'
'When you enter the outside field of the black hole, time and space will account for the fact that you have disappeared, everything outside of the black hole will essentially pause itself as existence removes every trace of you. For you it will appear as though nothing has changed, you will be able to view the Earth and the sun, much as you can now, but as the ship nears the point of singularity, the centre of the hole, your view of everything outside will begin to reverse at exponential speed. You will be able to witness every year of your life, of your father's life, from the point of view of this point in space. You will see millions of years pass in reverse in the blink of an eye, you will see the big bang occur in reverse as the universe collapses in on itself, and then...' Silence. Maxwell removed his gaze from the Earth for just a second. The computer had stopped talking.
'And then...? What?'
'I'm afraid I do not know. For obvious reasons there is no way to tell what will happen at the point of singularity. It is not even certain that anything beyond your ceasing to exist will occur for definite. My mind is formed of the sum of human and alien knowledge. My predictions are based on scientific fact and algorithmic equations of the greatest minds of all time. I am unable to tell you your fate for definite beyond what I have already told you.'
For the entire rest of the journey, the bridge deck was silent apart from the tearing of the thick titanium door as the mutated crew members fought amongst each other and desperately tried to tear their way through the blast doors to a meal.
'ETA is less than five minutes, midshipman.' the computer said. Maxwell said nothing more. He hunched forward in his seat, never taking his eye off his home planet as it grew smaller and smaller. The computer understood this silence and said nothing more as the ship grew closer and closer to the black hole.
A black hole is completely invisible to the naked eye. Only intricate scans by sophisticated equipment are even able to detect their presence. From any view outside of the ship, the vessel would just appear to vanish in an instant, but of course the consciousness and knowledge of this being viewed would disappear in less than a nanosecond. The world it left behind would cease to exist, and a new one would take its place.
The Earth would have no clue of the immense sacrifice being made in its name.