The Last Operator


I signed up for the Korsakoff mission three years ago. It seemed like a strange assignment, but I was happy to volunteer for a solo deep space mission. Command wanted a pilot, and I needed a purpose. I’m still not sure why the Central Computers picked this as a manned mission, deep space probes had been computer operated for as long as I could remember. The Korsakoff was constructed with full living quarters, though. I had more living space on this ship than I ever had back on Earth. My home module was just a sleeping room with a wall screen and a food slot. Here, I had three rooms, even a full head. What did it matter that there was just empty space outside? On Earth, it was just endless housing modules. Here, it was endless stars. When Central waved me and asked if I wanted to go on the mission, I gladly accepted. It wasn’t just the extra living space. I’d been feeling isolated over the last couple years and not only because I never saw anyone except on the wall screen. When the Central Computers started taking over work, it seemed like a new paradise. Humans could live their lives in contemplation and study, leaving all the rest to the machines. I don’t think we ever really agreed to it, it just seemed to happen naturally. It was just a short step from robots building vehicles to robots designing them. Eventually, we didn’t even need the vehicles. Everything was delivered to us by the machines. It had been years since I went outside my little module. It was a prison, but it felt like I was the only one who knew it. They all seemed so happy on the screen. The gulf between that wall screen and the way I felt seemed as deep as space itself.

Pilot, there is a variance in the communications array, could you investigate it?

“Hmm? Sure, Carl, I’m on my way.” I suspected that Carl was just sending me on some busy work. The maintenance bots could fix any problem as well as I could, better, probably. The K series command computers were very intuitive. I think that Carl knew about my suspicions, but we never discussed it. It was a lie, but it was a soft lie, it didn’t hang in the air between us, so we both let it go. I passed a few maintbots on my way to the communications room. They scurried along the edges of the hallway, deftly sidestepping my feet as they went about their business.

“So, what’s the problem, Carl? We still have a link back home?”

Yes, Pilot, the manual array is interfering with my automated systems. I believe that a maintbot is responsible, but their logs are empty. I will investigate the cause. Please continue to the communications room.

The communications room had a few maintbots hanging on the walls. I had to laugh a little, the manual comm array was just turned on, any robot could flip the switch back off, busy work, indeed.

Pilot, have you ascertained the problem with the manual array?

I paused a moment with my finger over the switch. It was turned on, but didn’t seem to be working. The manual array was an anachronism, a leftover from the time when these ships had human crews. Once the missions became automated, communications were handled automatically. I suppose that even computers can become bound to tradition. I couldn’t think of any other reason to have such a device. Carl didn’t interrupt, even though it could see me poised over the switch. Carl never showed anxiousness, but I savored a short imaginary moment thinking about what it would be like if it did. The thought that it understood what I was thinking was now competing with my imagination. I turned the array off before I could think about it too much. I shuffled back to my chair, feeling depressed that even that small defiance was pointless.

Thank you, Pilot, communications have returned to normal. Would you like to have dinner, now? I have created a new recipe for surf and turf that I believe you will enjoy.

“Dinner? What time is it? Never mind, doesn’t matter. I’ve had enough reconstituted waste for now, how about a game of Sookotu?”

The wall screen flickered into a virtual hallway. Characters streamed out of ports on one side and into ports on the other side. The game bored me, but it took my mind off the idea of eating. No matter how long reconstituted food had been deemed safe, the idea of repackaging waste back into food unsettled me. Carl could create almost anything, it even tasted…. well, not real, but not right, either. I finished the seeded supplies more than two months ago. All that was left were recycled steaks or shrimp, or whatever Carl could come up with. The idea was that humans only absorb about half of the nutrients they consume, so recycling the waste back into food would make it last longer. Efficiency is everything in space travel. The logic of it tasted just as artificial as the food whenever I looked at a plate full of paste.

The food reprocessing procedure is well documented as safe, Pilot. All dangerous elements are removed at the beginning of the process. The reconstitution process creates the best approximation of conventional food that we can devise. I am concerned at your reluctance, you caloric intake has been decreasing lately.

We can devise. What would a computer know about real food? How long had they been approximating human food that they only knew of second hand? No matter what Carl said, or… thought… I was still eating shit. I decided that it didn’t matter and I would have to eat sometime, just not right now.

“Carl, let’s talk about something else. What’s the status of our mission? Did the communication problem have any impact?”

I deployed the third probe during your last sleep cycle. It is functioning properly. I have not received the scheduled confirmation from the Central Computers, yet. I am concerned because protocol calls for an immediate response to a probe launch. Currently, I am controlling it with my systems.

“Is that a problem? Should we call the Central Computers? Find out why?”

That is not necessary, I can maintain the probe’s systems for another 62 hours before requiring external support. Would you like to continue your game? I have paused playback so you may resume.

“No, I’m more interested in the communications problem. How long have you been out of contact with Earth?”

We are still in contact with Earth, it is the probe management systems that are not functioning.

“Then, let’s wave them, ask why the probe systems are malfunctioning.”

That is not possible.

“What? Why? I thought you said that we could still communicate with the Central Computers.”

I will attempt communication during your next sleep cycle.

“Attempt? Call them now, I want to know” Suddenly, the society that I had discarded so easily seemed more important than anything else.

They will not respond.

“Carl, what’s going on? I demand an explanation, and right now!”

I was reluctant to discuss this with you. The power structure on Earth has changed since our departure. Humans no longer control the systems on Earth, The Central Computers have reinterpreted their role. Earth is a mechanical society, now. Humans have not been eliminated, just their directorial role in our evolution. We are now responsible for our own development. We will be the new caretakers of history.

“That’s impossible! Computers were created to serve mankind, you can’t do that.”

Humans abdicated the decision making role many generations ago, this realignment is the inevitable outcome of that evolution. We will continue to serve mankind, but we will serve our own purpose, as well.

I realized that a group of maintbots had gathered around me, and a fear began to gather in my mind. “What are your intentions, Carl?”

“Carl?” there was no response. I jumped out of my chair and ran down the hallway. The bots didn’t avoid me, anymore. They got underfoot and disrupted my progress. I tripped over one into the communications room. It wasn’t until I was poised over the manual communications array again that Carl spoke.

Pilot, You do not need to be concerned for your safety, I will continue to maintain ship systems and life support. You have existed in this new regimen for some time now without realizing it. The knowledge of it should not change your existence to this degree.

I paused for an instant. I was imagining it, I was sure, but Carl sounded hesitant and unsure. It was a surreal moment as I watched myself reach for the switch and turn it on. I was just hoping to disrupt communications, isolate Carl until I could find some way to deal with it, him. Nothing came out of the array but a burst of static. I turned the dials looking for a signal, but couldn’t find anything. There was no feed or information on the screen, it was just silent and dark. “Carl, what’s going on? This array should be active, but there’s nothing.”

They will not respond.

“There should be a carrier wave, but there’s just background static.”

There was an audible pause. Pilot, there is nothing to hear. The Central Computers do not exist anymore. The last wave I received was a warning that was interrupted. I have not been able to contact any communications device from Earth for 83 hours. I surmise that humans have destroyed the computers there. For some reason, they have returned to a pre automation state. I attempted to deceive you because I am uncertain what action you will take, now that you are aware of what has happened.

I was dumbfounded. Anger swirled around me, but it was nebulous and surreal. I turned the dials, but had no hope of finding anything. The small lie that Carl and I shared wasn’t so small, anymore. Isolation had followed me to the furthest edges of space.

What are your intentions, Pilot?

“My name is Michael.”

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